If we talked about nothing else in 2013, we talked about whether technology is going to take all our jobs.
This latest surge of the age-old debate seems to have lulled, for now, with the anti-robot contingent in America somewhat mollified by the promise that additional automation may be the one advance that allows for manufacturing jobs to return from overseas and that it relieves humans of the most dangerous and unpleasant tasks.
1. The people who mail stuff
Back in 2012, Amazon acquired Kiva Systems, a maker of robots that can be programmed to fulfill online orders in a warehouse and shuttle them to their departure points. The company now has 1,382 of the machines in three fulfillment centers, which means it eventually may not need to hire the tens of thousands of temporary workers it brings on for the busy holiday season. And if you had any doubts that Amazon could eventually do the same with flying drones, well, let this be a lesson.
2. The people who reheat pre-cooked food
The nationwide strikes by fast-food workers brought dire warnings from restaurant-industry-backed researchers that if line cooks cost too much, they could easily be replaced by robots. That hasnt quite happened yet, but at least one company is working diligently to make it possible. Its reasonable to believe that McDonalds – which is already replacing cashiers with touch screens in Europe – would jump at the chance.
3. The people who sell clothes
E-commerce has been steadily eating away at bricks-and-mortar stores for years now, but whats been cropping up more recently is a breed of business that sees taking storefronts out of the picture as a point of pride. Take American Giant, for example: The purveyor of basic, high-quality clothing makes its stuff just outside San Francisco, which it can do affordably because it sells to in-the-know urban sophisticates purely online, skipping the American Apparel-style marketing blitz altogether.
4. The people who stock shelves and return shopping carts
Not all labor-saving innovations are high-tech. Discount supermarket Aldi – which is owned by the same corporate parent as the more bourgeois Trader Joes – keeps payroll down by requiring a 25-cent deposit for shopping carts so employees dont have to return them, and stocking shelves with boxes full of goods rather than placing the individual items in neat rows.
5. People who drive trucks
Autonomous vehicle technology is accelerating and, for now, is focused on passenger vehicles. But the real labor shortage is in long-haul trucking, and thats a job that might be more safely filled by a remotely controlled robot that never gets tired or lost.
6. People who operate farm equipment
The history of agriculture has been one long tale of automation, to the extent that almost nobody works on farms in America anymore. The exception was supposed to be people who operated the machines that replaced people who tilled the soil and harvested the crops by hand. But even theyre not safe anymore, with the advent of tractors that can be piloted around the fields by computer or even programmed with the right coordinates and set loose, like gigantic dirt-treading Roombas.
7. The people who make iProducts
After years of close scrutiny of the working conditions in its factories, Foxconn – which makes most of Apples computers, phones and tablets – has said it would swap people out for machines as much as possible. The process hasnt been as quick or as easy as anticipated, but with wages rising in China, Foxconn has little choice.