We burn our robots in Africa; they keep trying to steal our jobs
South Africa is an interesting dichotomy, a juxtaposition of the un-PC First and Third Worlds, where the “haves” and the “have nots” reside uneasily together.
With an unemployment rate close to 40% and a large unskilled workforce, retail is a major employer of people in the country. No, you will not find an Amazon Go store here — though this is the land that also spawned America’s latest darling, Elon Musk.
Robots will be disruptors
Like the music, film and publishing industries before it, the retail industry has often been a harbinger of change. Disruptive innovations such as the Internet affect these industries first, and they are frequently led by the creators and early adopters in the diffusion of innovation chronology that conjure up the disruption, induce it, encourage it, adopt it early, and then spread it to the early majority.
Such it was that the distribution and consumption of music quickly morphed from vinyl to tape to CD to MP3 to streaming, movies went from cinema to video to DVD to streaming, books went from paper to audio to e-book, and retail went from physical to digital and online shopping. The world’s richest man, Jeff Bezos, reportedly now worth $150 billion thanks to his company Amazon, and the world’s first company valued at over $1 trillion, Apple, both prospered off of the back of change. This is irrefutable evidence of the importance of embracing and commercialising innovation.
Speaking philosophically, it was Darwin who admonished that humans who are adaptable to change are the most likely to survive. Although in some dystopian universe this all paints a rather bleak picture, innovations are never an overnight thing: the Internet’s predecessor, ARPANet, was born in the 1960s and its adoption as a mainstream technology took over 25 years; the driverless car has its roots back in the 1990s and still has not become mainstream; the internal combustion engine is almost 100 years out of date and is still the default mode of transport because of the power of the oil companies and the clout of oil-producing nations. However, thanks to Moore’s Law the time period between invention and adoption is shortening, which does mean industries must be more adept to adapt.
Retail could be particularly vulnerable
Retail, depending on the source consulted, is one of the industries most vulnerable and susceptible to automation, with an approximately 90% chance that an entry-level retail employer will be replaced by a robot in the future. Menial jobs with low levels of skill and EQ will be the first to go. From a shopping centre perspective, this could also include cleaning and security (although it would be very interesting to witness a robot trying to take on an armed robber packing an AK-47).
Automation and robotics are hardly new. There was an enormous hue and outcry over automation in the motor industry, when assembling car parts became the job of robots, as Japan embraced Ford’s assembly line and innovated it to new levels. That industry has weathered the storm, and jobs that became redundant were simply replaced by new ones. Likewise, the doing away of the flight engineer with the invention of the two-man glass cockpit saw an entire generation of aviators die out. The technology has long existed to do away with pilots altogether, and where jobs are concerned, pilots are also under threat from robots and motherboards. The question that has been asked is, who is willing to risk the first commercial flight, with 500 fellow passengers not piloted by a human?
Like the aviation industry, one of retail’s biggest costs is staff salaries — the other being rentals. Robots and automated systems could theoretically halve costs each month, simply by replacing unreliable humans with machines, who do not need maternity leave, sick leave, disciplinary hearings, counselling for job-related issues, staff training, dealing with poor service, or HR interventions.
But are robots ethical in the developing world?
Shades of Jurassic Park come to mind. In the words of Jeff Goldblum, upon learning that dinosaurs had been genetically re-engineered, begged the question, “We were so busy checking to see if we COULD do it, that nobody stopped to ask if we SHOULD do it?”
In a country like Japan, with a highly skilled but ageing population characterised by low growth rates, robots make sense — probably one of the reasons Japan has been at the forefront of the technology for such a long time. But in a country like South Africa, with a large and unskilled young population, would robots not be a recipe for anarchy and disaster?
According to Stats SA, the retail sector employs almost a million people from the workforce in South Africa, earning between $400 and $900 per month, and it contributes some 15% to the GDP. How effectively has the informal retail sector, with spaza shops and the like, been calibrated? The number of people dependent on this single salary is possibly as high as four. Assuming that most of that workforce became redundant, what would all those people do, and how would they eat?
Politics will force regulation
The political implications alone are too onerous to contemplate: SA sits with an unemployment rate of anywhere between 30% and 40%, while the unemployed youth are at 67%. This is potentially volatile and explosive: not to make light of the tragedies that have befallen SA in the past, but it would probably not be inconceivable to witness a mob putting a tyre filled with petrol over a robot and burning it in effigy as part of some “digital necklacing”. The company that initially ekes out a living fixing robots due to strike, industrial action and sabotage would probably make a fortune over time; ditto for the company hired to protect the robots. Bot-jacking could potentially become a new and very lucrative cottage industry.
And in all likelihood, spun with prevarication “to protect the electorate,” political parties would pull out all the guns to legislate and regulate the robots, in order to guard their market share in parliament, in much the same way that solar is being taxed to shore up the municipalities’ income from energy, sugar is being taxed to stop the rampant spread of obesity, and plastic is taxed to deter litter and stop environmental ruination.
The 2Es could still save retail
Of course, there is still a way for humans to pull back from the brink of a complete hand-over to robots — two simple concepts that have resuscitated retail again and again, first from the onslaught of digital and online shopping, and now possibly from robots: emotion, and engagement. While the novelty of having a robot serve up a table’s pizza will last for some time, will androids and robots ever be able to truly mimic human emotions and interactions? It’s a question that plagued Data in Star Trek: The Next Generation, and was the theme of many an episode. Can a robot ever re-create an authentic experience with another human being, with the same depth of emotion and connection, creating memories and moments to look back on? Will the singularity, the event at which AI becomes more intelligent than humans, bring about a race of humans who are themselves machines? Will there be a counter-movement of the Augmenteds versus the Organics?
Perhaps it is ecclesiastical sophistry to state that there is nothing new under the sun — but human beings have been remarkably consistent in their needs and wants for thousands of years — and in their resistance to change. Maslow’s hierarchy applies to the Stone Age as much as it does to the Information Age, although the way in which the needs are met has radically altered — but the needs haven’t. Watching an episode of Downton Abbey reveals the Dowager Countess of Grantham’s reluctance to embrace the electrification of the manor, while in 2020, some 100 years later, South Africans bemoan a two-hour load-shedding incident with cries of, “How are we supposed to get any work done?” While some may view the introduction of robots as a threat to the very existence of humanity, perhaps in 100 years, the new generation will look on (while standing next to their 150-year-old digitally augmented great-great-grandparents) and say, “How did humanity ever survive without them?”
No one has ever been able to accurately predict the future. So the only logical answer (as a robot would say), is to wait and see.
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