The Insidious Rise of Automation

By Ali Ahmad, April 23, 2021

Next time you go to your favorite coffee shop or go the checkout aisle at Walmart, you won’t be met with the warm welcome of a person behind the counter. Instead, a computer will simply prompt you for payment. Automation is replacing jobs that were once held by people with cold efficient machines. This raises ethical issues of unemployment, wealth inequality, and how we interact with machines. Automation holds the potential to drastically upend the precious balance of labor that we have today.

Automation is the result of advancement made in artificial intelligence, robotics, and advanced computing systems. Customer service is especially vulnerable to automation takeover. Instead of a cashier behind a counter, customer check out is now equipped with automated touchscreen kiosks.  Businesses looking to improve customer satisfaction and reduce wait time in lines are resorting to these kiosks. Leading technology and business executives concluded during a Gartner Customer Service Summit that “nearly 85% of all customer transactions will be done with humans” by 2030 (Schneider, 2017).  Furthermore, people are turning to robots for brand information and outreach. Facebook, along with airline and tourism businesses, are employing thousands of chatbots to connect consumers with ads—in fact, messaging apps overtook social media since “individuals are increasingly using messaging apps to interact with brands” (Schneider, 2017).

Automation is also becoming increasingly involved in the kitchen.  In 2015, four MIT graduates founded Spyce, a fully robotic kitchen that “cooks food constantly by tumbling your food, thus providing a nice sear” (Andrews, 2019). These robotic culinary contraptions cook food in less time and reduce wait time. Businesses are eagerly turning to automation technology as operating costs and competition increase, but right now automation remains more of a “ helping hand” (Andrews, 2019).

Having automated machines in the workplace has generated heated ethical dilemmas in the workplace. With an increase in automation, there is a good chance that some jobs will be considered obsolete in a few years. Humans will no longer be “central and critical” to the workplace environment and productivity (Mayor, 2019). Advances in automation also highlight the growing wealth inequality in America and impact corporate greed has had on technological development. From 1987 to 2016, displacement due to automation was 16 percent but reinstatement was only 10 percent in factory positions (Dizikes, 2020). In other words, more people from lower paying jobs are being displaced than are being hired. Furthermore, by pushing low income groups out of the labor force and replacing them with automated machines, the need for skilled labor increases. This demand for scarce labor may push highly skilled income further above low skilled income, widening the already massive income gap (Dizikes, 2020).

Introducing automated machines into the workplace could also lead to heightened workplace anxiety. By having machines that do some of the tasks originally done by humans, workers might begin to fear losing their job. Since automated machines are quickly becoming more and more advanced, it is not unmanageable to foresee a future where machines perform work in an office environment, thus “causing panic and reducing morreale” (Gaskell, 2018). If automation is to have a much larger place within our society these pressing ethical dilemmas need to be addressed immediately.

Automation is here to stay, and we need to adapt to the ever-changing technological challenges that automation brings. As algorithms replace human workers, there is a chance of increased unemployment. In an automated society, many people will face the dilemma of “broken career ladders,” in which entry-level workers no longer have any opportunity to enter the workforce (Wong, 2015). Entry-level jobs in finance, banking, construction, and even waiting tables could become automated in the future. These jobs will greatly reduce career options for many young workers. The future of automation appears quite alarming.  Once a reservoir of creativity and hope, modern technological advancement is quickly becoming a nightmare with extensive ramifications for blue collar workers.


References

Andrews, R. (2019, August 28). How automation is changing the way restaurants do business. Eat. https://restaurant.eatapp.co/blog/automation-in-restaurant-industry

Dizikes, P. (2020, May 5). Study finds stronger links between automation and inequality. MIT News. https://news.mit.edu/2020/study-inks-automation-inequality-0506

Gaskell, A. (2018, April 18). Automation, ethics and accountability of AI systems. Forbes. https://www.forbes.com/sites/adigaskell/2018/04/18/automation-ethics-and-accountability-of-ai-systems

Mayor, T. (2019, July 8). Ethics and automation: What to do when workers are displaced. MIT Sloan School of Management. https://mitsloan.mit.edu/ideas-made-to-matter/ethics-and-automation-what-to-do-when-workers-are-displaced

McNeal, M. (2015, August 7). Rise of the machines: The future has lots of robots, few jobs for humans. Wired. https://www.wired.com/brandlab/2015/04/rise-machines-future-lots-robots-jobs-humans/

Schneider, C. (2019, October 28). 10 reasons why AI-powered, automated customer service is the future. Watson Blog. https://www.ibm.com/blogs/watson/2017/10/10-reasons-ai-powered-automated-customer-service-future/

Wong, J.C. (2015, January 18). How will automation affect society? World Economic Forum. https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2015/01/how-will-automation-affect-society/

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