This week, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos revealed his latest plans to revolutionize delivery services: A helicopter drone designed to bring you your packages in 30 minutes or less.
Whether Bezos' vision will become a reality remains to be seen. But consider, for a moment, the poor deliveryman (or woman). What used to seem like a pretty secure job that couldn’t get shipped overseas may now be left behind in the inexorable march towards automation. Much like the car manufacturers, toll collectors, and bank tellers of yesteryear, those that bring our packages to our front doors could find themselves trapped in a shrinking industry increasingly taken over by robots.
This is hardly a new phenomenon. In the 1930s, economist John Maynard Keynes warned of “technological unemployment,” an economic condition in which more jobs are being lost than created because of mechanization. In recent years, that trend has accelerated, according to researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who argue that new technologies like computerized inventory control and voice recognition software are allowing machines to move into service sector jobs that were once thought to be beyond their reach.
The last recession has only intensified the changes. During the economic downturn, as businesses looked for ways to cut costs, they increasingly turned to the idea of replacing people with technology. Corporations rebounded rather quickly while wages remained stagnant, which can be explained in part by the fact that companies have increased their spending on equipment and software by 26 percent between June of 2009 (the official end of the recession) and October 2011.
A study from Oxford University released in September concluded that up to 47 percent of jobs in the United States could be automated in the next 20 years. The researchers, Carl Frey and Michael Osborne, argue that the changes will hit the lower-income jobs Americans have increasingly been turning to in this post-recession economy.
“Our model predicts that most workers in transportation and logistics occupations, together with the bulk of office and administrative support workers, and labor in production occupations, are at risk,” they write. “More surprisingly, we find that a substantial share of employment in service occupations, where most U.S. job growth has occurred over the past decades, are highly susceptible to computerization.”
Their predictions are already coming true, and the evidence is cropping up everywhere. Amazon isn’t the first company to ponder whether drones can deliver its products more cheaply and efficiently. There’s the TacoCopter, a gadget unveiled in September that is designed to bring you tasty Mexican food. Over the summer, a Domino’s franchise in the United Kingdom proved you can deliver two pizzas with an unmanned aircraft. In China, SF Express has been testing delivery-by-drone for the better part of this year.
Beyond drone delivery systems, automation has found its way into many aspects of American life. Google and Toyota are making cars that can drive themselves. Meter readers who check how much electricity consumers use are becoming obsolete, thanks to high-tech equipment that can transmit the data back to the power company.
Even the way we go out to eat is being revolutionized. Applebee’s, the largest restaurant chain in the country, will have a tablet at every table by the end of 2014, allowing customers to order and pay their bills without the help of a waiter. The company isn’t totally doing away with servers, at least for now. But industry analysts expect more chains to follow suit and for the technology to take root across the country in the next 10 years, eliminating the need for as many employees.
Coffee by robot, for example, is no longer some futuristic dream. The Briggio kiosk has been serving made-to-order java on the University of Texas' Austin campus since July. You can pre-order online and pick it up when it’s done. No more waiting in line.
Depending on where you stand, that may not be such a bad development. But as more low-paid service jobs disappear, these workers will have to find a place for themselves in this economy — a tough task given the stubbornly high unemployment rate.
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