Mars colonisation, hi-tech skin computers, jetpacks – people casting their eyes to the 2020s from decades gone by had a much more glamorous idea of where technology was set to take us, or at the very least, thought we’d get there much more quickly.
Much to the dismay or those wanting to channel their inner Dr Manhattan and escape to Mars, one of the most pervasive developments of technology in recent years has been automation. From factories populated with thousands of moving arms, conveyors and tools to ‘unexpected item in the bagging area’ and Sainsbury’s incredibly unflattering self-checkout cameras, automation has touched our lives in one way or another whether we welcome it or not.
With machines fast replacing humans in McDonald’s, Sainsbury’s and ever more places up and down the high street, we must consider the human cost of such a widespread societal shift. It’s easy to get caught up in the convenience and efficiency of such innovations; that’s just what companies want you to do. A McDonald’s self-service kiosk in the US pays for itself in little over a year if it directly replaces one worker, which presents an incredibly viable strategy for such a large corporation.
Much service industry automation is still in its earliest stages – taking orders and similar menial tasks – but AI technology develops robots and stand to become increasingly pervasive in the world around us. This is exactly the plan of new UK company servicerobots.com, who provide robots to perform various tasks such as serving champagne, conducting surveys or providing information – and can be hired from as little as £3 an hour.
Initially, such technology seems useful, innovative and liberating – it opens the door to whole events staffed by robots, meaning lower costs for brands and companies. The low price opens this technology up to smaller businesses or organisations, rather than just large corporations like McDonald’s, bringing a slice of the future to everyone. In an ideal world, companies like Service Robots would be leading the charge of making our society more convenient, more luxurious, and more equitable as there becomes less of a need for menial, undesirable jobs.
And that may be the case in some respects – those who access such technology undoubtedly benefit. Of course, some human interaction is lost but that can be argued to be a necessary and relatively insignificant sacrifice for the sake of convenience. Service Robots has been on the receiving end of national awards and praise from the likes of Prince Harry, and set to dominate much more of the market after working with clients such as Samsung, Selfridges and Amazon.
But this praise shouldn’t detract from the people losing out on jobs as a result of automation. With constant pressure to raise the minimum wage both here and in the US, and constant struggles surrounding workers’ rights in the face of a growing gig economy, there is still the same need for people to earn an income. Automation may make life easier when you’re ordering a Big Mac but don’t want any pickles, but the money saved goes right into the pockets of corporations (and likely to some tax haven shortly after), rather than a working person’s wallet.
A better society might not suffer from such a problem. It’s a sad indictment of our priorities that automation can’t be a blanket positive and that people have to suffer because of it. Ideas such as a ‘robot tax’ or Universal Basic Income are nearing the political mainstream – with fringe Democratic Presidential Candidate Andrew Yang a major proponent of the latter.
These are conversations that need to be had, lest we allow major waves of automation to pass us by and are left in the cold by profiting corporations who gave no second thoughts to releasing their pizza delivery drones into the world.
In a time of great socioeconomic change, being aware of how exactly large-scale changes such as automation affects all in society is crucial, and blindly accepting Amy the robot waitress and her wildly convenient £3 an hour wage is the worst thing we can do.