Amazon, Robots, and Worker Math

According to current estimates, nearly half of human jobs could be done by robots. A British study reported that 90% of UK government jobs could be done by robots. Some Chinese factories have already replaced that percentage of workers. And the list of jobs which could, in theory, be done by machines is growing.

But Amazon’s real-world example shows that this doesn’t mean that hordes of unemployed humans will be roaming the streets.

Recent rumors have suggested that Amazon is developing a new grocery store with just three human beings looking after a large staff of automated machinery. There will be a human being who will sell Amazon Fresh memberships and keep the hoi polloi without those memberships from entering the store. There’ll be someone to restock shelves, a job robots can’t currently do very well. And there’ll be a person to hand bags to drive-through customers.

Not because robots can’t do that, but because people feel more confident if a human being does it.

The customers will choose their items with an app and robots in the basement will pick and pack their grocery bags.  The human workers will watch for shoplifters  and provide smiles while they do the few tasks that actually require human beings.

Amazon flatly denies this rumor. Since the story is so much better than the denial, the story continues to run rampant in the news. It’s not completely impossible, and it’s a good example of the kind of future fretting that focuses on robots taking jobs.

Here are some actual facts. Amazon is deeply involved in research and innovation with automation. Last year, Amazon’s  robot worker population increased from 30,000 to 45,000. The human workforce increased by about the same proportion. Amazon expects to create 100,000 jobs for people in the next 18 months, according to its public reports.

The actual facts suggest that, just like the workers of yore whose jobs were taken by early robots, workers of the future will find that they have job options.

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