We’re continually told that robots are coming for our jobs, but when exactly this will happen, nobody seems to know. That’s because the process of automation — like climate change — is ponderously slow and hugely complex. Its effects are diffuse, spread out over time and space so much that we can trick ourselves into thinking it’s not happening, or, at the very least, that it’s happening to someone else.
A new report from Reuters on Amazon’s latest effort to replace workers with machines can help dispel these notions.
The news agency says Amazon is trialing technology in its warehouses that can package orders five times faster than humans. Workers place items on a conveyor belt, and the machine builds a box around them, processing up to 700 orders an hour. Reuters says the machines have been installed in a “handful” of warehouses, but Amazon is considering bringing them to “dozens” of locations. In each case, it would mean the loss of 24 jobs.
A spokesperson for Amazon confirmed the story, telling Reuters the technology was being piloted “with the goal of increasing safety, speeding up delivery times and adding efficiency.” In a bit of optimistic spin, they added: “We expect the efficiency savings will be re-invested in new services for customers, where new jobs will continue to be created.”
In some ways, this story doesn’t seem that exciting.
The technology Amazon is deploying isn’t new. It’s been around at least five years, and it’s not flashy: it doesn’t involve cool robots, just anonymous assembly line machinery. (You can see it in action in the video below.) What’s more, the scale of the job losses Reuters reports isn’t too big. The news agency estimates that these machines could remove some 1,300 positions in Amazon’s warehouses in the US. But that’s a drop in the bucket compared to the 196,000 jobs US employers added in March alone.
All of this shows why it can be so hard to get our heads around the process of automation and why you may feel, when you read the latest headline about millions of jobs being threatened by robots, that these fears are overblown. It’s because the scale and pace of this change are often achingly slow.
The details from Reuters’ report hint at the bigger picture. For a start, the story notes that Amazon isn’t alone in trialing this technology; Walmart and Chinese retailing giant JD.com are also testing it out. That means any potential job losses have to be multiplied across the entire industry, not just a single company.
Reuters also notes that the new machines don’t eliminate jobs altogether. Workers still have to place items on a conveyor belt, even if they don’t box them. This is nearly always the way with automation. Robots don’t steal whole jobs; they just replace certain tasks. This can free up humans to work elsewhere, but it can also cut down on the total number of jobs needed.
The story also notes how Amazon avoids bad press about firing workers for robots because it doesn’t lay off humans directly. Instead, says Reuters, it relies on attrition:
Rather than lay off workers, the person said, the world’s largest online retailer will one day refrain from refilling packing roles. Those have high turnover because boxing multiple orders per minute over 10 hours is taxing work.
In other words, Amazon doesn’t have to fire people to make way for robots. The work is so grueling, it can just wait for them to quit on their own. In the meantime, because the company continues to grow so quickly, it can boast one of the largest workforces in America while plowing its profits back into R&D, which, in turn, creates technology that will chip away at more jobs.
This is exactly how automation works: slowly and by degree. Amazon acknowledges that the technology to replace its warehouse workers doesn’t yet exist, and it says fully automated warehouses are at least a decade away. But it doesn’t deny that such “lights out” warehouses are what it’s building toward — the same as its competitors.
Ultimately, the question of whether technology will create more jobs than it destroys over the next few decades is impossible to answer with any certainty. But it’s safe to say that certain types of jobs are going to become less and less common, until, one day, they cease to exist. Each time a job is lost, it’s a drop in the bucket. But given enough drops, every bucket overflows.