Walmart proudly announced a new addition to its stores: lots of robots. The robots will take the place of humans and engage in routine tasks, such as scanning shelf inventory and boxes as they arrive at the stores. Walmart contends that the influx of robots will reduce the number of workers engaged in “repeatable, predictable and manual” tasks.

At first blush, this seems relatively innocuous. However, when you consider the deeper and darker ramifications, things start to look frightening. There have been studies conducted heralding the introduction of robotics, artificial intelligence (AI) and other technologies. The reports conclude that this new age of AI will emancipate workers from the monotonous drudgery of their dreary rote tasks. The studies claim that these displaced workers will be set free to accept more meaningful wonderful jobs created by robotics and technology. Proponents of this utopian future share roseate pictures and videos of cute, friendly robots to alleviate any suspicions or concerns.

This scenario flies in the face of reason. The first question to ask is, “What will the displaced human workers do next?” Let’s look at this from a commonsense and practical perspective—and not from the viewpoint of a professor in an ivory tower or the results of a study underwritten by those who stand to benefit from this seismic shift.

For example, for a person who unloads boxes off of a delivery truck or stocks shelves, the odds are high that he lacks a college degree and doesn’t  possess other marketable skills. It is unrealistic and dismissive for wealthy technocrats to suggest that a 52-year-old high school graduate, living in a small town and lacking any transferable skills, could find fulfilling employment as a software coder for the next cool new startup.

Moreover, it is not just Walmart that is ushering in robots. Silicon Valley venture capitalists are funding companies to enable AI, software and robots to replace people in every corner of the corporate world. Instead of naively welcoming this new dire trend, we should carefully consider the long-term ramifications.

Walmart’s deployment of robots is all about cutting costs. Humans are a big expense for major global corporations. A one-time cost of purchasing robots—in the long run—is much cheaper than having tens of thousands of people on the corporate payroll. Robots do not need benefits, paid vacation and sick days. Nor will they quit for a better job, complain or take lunch breaks.

Walmart’s deployment of robots is all about cutting costs. Humans are a big expense for major global corporations. A one-time cost of purchasing robots—in the long run—is much cheaper than having tens of thousands of people on the corporate payroll. Robots do not need benefits, paid vacation and sick days. Nor will they quit for a better job, complain or take lunch breaks.

McKinsey & Co., a large management consulting firm, published a report  concluding that 800 million workers worldwide will be adversely impacted and could lose their jobs to robots and automation by 2030. This represents roughly one fifth of today’s global workforce. The United States will witness up to 73 million jobs eliminated by 2030.

According to the research, the U.S. middle class has the most to fear. Workers with skills that can be easily replicated by technology are in trouble. Lawyers, bankers, accountants, doctors, truck and cab drivers, fast food workers and many other professionals will be affected. Compensation for many people will plummet, as they will be pitted against by robots and AI.

McKinsey notes that “governments will have to develop and provide extensive job retraining to help displaced workers, as well as providing more generous income supplements. Beyond retraining, a range of policies can help, including unemployment insurance, public assistance in finding work, and portable benefits that follow workers between jobs as well as possible solutions to supplement incomes, such as more comprehensive minimum wage policies, universal basic income, or wage gains tied to productivity.” Millions of people will be forced onto government welfare programs. It is disingenuous to claim that hardworking people with 20-plus years of specialized experience and earning a good living can easily pivot to a different career and continue to earn a decent salary.  

It’s understandable that Walmart must find new ways, such as deploying robots, to compete with the onslaught from Amazon. Somehow, as a nation, we need to ensure that Silicon Valley billionaires won’t get richer and companies leaner by eviscerating the employees. If you follow this trend to its natural conclusion, who will buy all the products and services if we’re all out of work?

Source: Forbes

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