Robots, Automation, and a Universal Basic Income

(Photo: AP/Brandon Bailey)

A Kiva robot drive unit is seen, foreground, before it moves under a stack of merchandise pods, on a tour of one of Amazon's newest distribution centers in California in 2014. 

The specter of robots replacing workers is not a new one. Much has been written about how technological advances will make human labor, which requires cumbersome things like wages and health care, obsolete. But now we’re beginning to see just how robots and automation are laying the groundwork for future domination in some sectors.

Warehouses are ground zero. For years, retailers have integrated robot technology into their supply chains, but the latitude of tasks robots could complete in a complex shipping process has been limited—many warehouse robots operate on fixed tracks or in stationary positions. Now, robots are becoming more sophisticated, more autonomous, and more readily able to complete more complicated tasks once reserved for humans.  

The Wall Street Journal looked at how more and more retailers are looking to further integrate robots into their warehousing systems. The newspaper profiled Symbotic LLC, a company headed by New England billionaire Rick Cohen. The company has built up a national network of highly automated distribution centers that rely almost entirely on robots to organize, store, and send out products by using untethered, autonomous robots that zip up and down aisles to store and retrieve products. In one of these warehouses, only about 20 human workers are needed to load cases of products onto pallets while more than 100 robots store and retrieve the products.

Cohen has not only implemented the system in his wholesale-grocery distribution business, which is the largest in the country, but he’s also convinced companies like Target, Coca-Cola, and grocery-store chain Kroger to implement his system in some of their own distribution centers. With rising labor costs and intense competition from online retailers like Amazon, the Journal writes, full automation is seen as a necessary competitive edge. “What we’re doing with autonomous bots is not that dissimilar from what Google is doing with autonomous cars,” Cohen told the Journal. “I think within five years, it’ll change distribution.”

Full or partial automation of grocery warehouses is still marginal—about 8 percent, according to the article—and with razor-thin profit margins, wholesalers and distributors are often reluctant to spend as much as $100 million to retrofit their operations with robots. Still, unions that represent grocery-warehouse workers are concerned. “Employers are looking to move more and more into automation, and I think we’re going to be faced with those challenges in contract negotiations in coming years,” Steve Vairma, who heads the Teamsters’ warehouse division, told the Journal.

Meanwhile, VICE Motherboard reports on how Amazon is driving a robotic arms race. In 2012, Amazon bought the robotics company Kiva Systems for $775 million—and made it so Kiva’s technology could be used only in Amazon warehouses. These Kiva robots autonomously zoom around the warehouse using a series of barcodes on the floor to guide them, picking items and bringing them back to warehouse workers. These robots save these workers from the immense physical toll of walking as many as 20 miles per shift, sometimes in unbearable heat; but this also means that fewer human workers are needed. The jobs that remain will be less labor intensive, and more like those of a robot supervisor. Since Amazon bought Kiva, a host of other companies are trying to develop even more advanced warehouse robots and sell them to Amazon’s competitors.

While retail suppliers are on the forefront of replacing humans with robots, they’re not the only ones. Fast-food companies are investing in kiosks that would do away with cashiers. American trucking companies are working to put fleets of self-driving trucks on the road, putting at risk the jobs of more than three million truck drivers. Google has long been developing self-driving car technology, and this month Uber launched a fleet of self-driving cars in Pittsburgh with hopes of going fully driverless by 2030.

The specter of automation is no small concern—especially for the low-wage workforce. According to the White House’s Council of Economic Advisors, 83 percent of the jobs paying less than $20 an hour are projected to be impacted by automation. However, President Obama’s chief economist Jason Furman, in an article for The Atlantic, maintains a fairly rosy outlook about the impact of artificial intelligence on the workforce.

“Of course, advanced economies have seen vast amounts of innovation in the last three centuries without rendering human labor obsolete. Most of the types of jobs that existed in the 1700s do not exist today, but new types of jobs that no one could have imagined then have taken their place—all because of technological advances. A different trajectory is unlikely to emerge this time around because even though AI has the potential to replace certain human tasks, it will likely also create entirely new fields of jobs.”

But these new fields of jobs will likely require new sets of skills that would make displaced workers’ transitions more difficult. And Furman concedes that the turnover period would likely include “a combination of lower wages years and extended periods of extended joblessness.”

All this is giving rise to the call for a universal basic income (UBI)—that is, a policy under which the government will provide everyone with a paycheck whether they work or not. For some advocates on the left (including former SEIU President Andy Stern), the UBI is seen as a critical backstop to protect workers from an economy that is dramatically reshaping the nature of labor. Others fear that it might supplant targeted benefits such as Social Security and food stamps, so that current recipients will end up worse off. For many in high-tech business, UBI is seen as a way to eliminate political resistance to automation. In fact, as National Public Radio reported this past weekend, Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, who have helped develop technology that has made human labor more obsolete, are now becoming some of the leading proponents of the UBI. Some European governments, including Britain’s Labour Party, are closely considering the policy. In the United States, however, the policy remains somewhat secluded—and debated—in liberal policy circles. 

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