Amazon’s New Product will Revolutionize Grocery Shopping: Teitel
One day, a robot will probably write this column. After all, the formula isn’t very hard to follow. Here’s a primer. Step 1: personal anecdote. Step 2: thesis. Step 3: a supporting example or two. Step 4: an insight — sometimes profound, often times pulled straight out of the writer’s you-know-what.
In fact, one day, not so far away (here comes Step 2), robots will do a lot of jobs formerly done by humans. And by a lot, I mean millions. According to a report released earlier this year by the World Economic Forum, by the year 2020, more than five million jobs will be lost to technology or as a direct result of technology. And it’s easy enough to determine which of those occupations will face extinction sooner rather than later.
This month, Amazon, the massive online retailer and arguably the world’s biggest bookstore, made headlines with the launch of Amazon Go, a pilot project that could, and very well might, lead to the elimination of grocery store checkout lines, and with them, the time-honoured job of grocery store cashier.
This is because Amazon Go is a physical grocery store without a checkout counter.
Here’s how it works: Shoppers download an Uber-like app attached to their credit card, they walk into a Go store, swipe their smartphone over a screen, pick up their items as they would in any other conventional supermarket, and simply walk out, sans lineup and terse exchange with a cashier.
The technology is supposedly advanced enough to determine the difference between browsing (when a customer picks something up and puts it back on the shelf) and taking (when he puts it into his cart and walks away with it). There is already a Go store in operation in Seattle, but it’s only available to Amazon employees. However, the company has plans to roll out stores for the general public in other cities in the near future.
As a consumer, the idea is admittedly appealing. Sometimes the sheer thought of a grocery store checkout line on a Sunday afternoon is enough to keep me at home. But the implications for the people who work in those lines might be dire, as are, quite possibly, the implications for items sold near the checkout line itself. What will become of tabloids, chocolate bars and gum? These products are obviously available and popular elsewhere, but they are also purchased in great quantity by people who would never reach for them were they not forced to lay eyes on them while waiting in line. I have never in my life written “US Weekly” on a grocery shopping list, but if I’m stuck in a shopping cart jam by the cash, I am powerless before any rag that promises to reveal an unsavoury truth about the ever-expanding Duggar clan. (Some people go crazy for the Kardashians or the Housewives of. . . ; my weakness is the Duggars. I know, I’m sick).
Needless to say, the extinction of traditionally human held jobs and the rise of a robot workforce is more important and far reaching than gum and tabloids. If the only consequence of technological upheaval is that fewer people will be tempted to read about the Duggars and buy Halls, I think we can learn to live with that. But this paradigm shift isn’t relegated to the grocery store industry and it isn’t going away. Uber, Tesla and Google are working on driverless cars: the possible death knell of delivery jobs. And who will need human reporters in a post-truth world, where nobody pays for news anyway. Computer algorithms are more than capable of spinning the kind of whacko yarns popular today, about Hillary Clinton operating a pedophile ring in the basement of her local pizzeria or Stephen Harper building a Death Star. (That last one, I hear, might actually be true).
What’s scariest about this future, however, beyond the possible skyrocketing unemployment rate, is how ill prepared we are to deal with it in the present. According the World Economic Forum’s Future of Jobs report referenced above, our only hope of succeeding amid technological upheaval is accepting that such upheaval is taking place and investing in the kind of education that renders people employable in a modern economy.
The report reads: “Without urgent and targeted action today to manage the near-term transition and build a workforce with future-proof skills, governments will have to cope with ever-growing unemployment and inequality.”
Unfortunately, so will millions of Americans who voted for Donald J. Trump in hopes that the candidate would make good on his promise to bring back to the United States, manufacturing and sales jobs outsourced to countries overseas. This promise was always a hollow one, not only because Trump and politicians of the same opportunistic bent rarely make good on their oaths, but because the truth is that a great majority of those manufacturing and sales jobs aren’t long for this world — whether the people working them are in China, Mexico or Michigan.
Everyone, no matter where they live and what they do, must reckon with the likelihood that they will one day be deemed replaceable.