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Everyone deserves the opportunity to work hard for a living. The modern tragedy is that not everyone who wants to work is able to find work, even if they take all the right steps, and those who find work often have to settle for less pay than they deserve.
But a greater tragedy looms before us: those who have work are slowly being replaced by next-generation robots.
Not long ago, Target announced plans to replace human workers with automated systems and robots at a yet-to-be-opened concept store. It sounds scary and ominous, especially for those of us who aren’t exactly secure in our employment, but is it something we should actually fear?
Maybe. Maybe not. It’s complicated.
What Exactly Is Target Doing?
It all started when Target publicly announced a partnership with Techstars, a group that focuses on accelerating startups. Known for being one of the best startup accelerators in the world, Techstars has been instrumental in the success of hundreds of young tech companies.
By working with Techstars, Target hopes to use the expertise of various startups to create a “retail accelerator” program that analyzes the retail experience – everything from supply chain and distribution to customer interactions – to make its operations cheaper and more effective.
This new direction makes, given that Target has been dealing with tech-related bottlenecks for quite some time. Despite its best efforts at integrating online sales with retail sales, Target continues to suffer from poor inventory management, shortages of key goods, and checkout software crashes.
So in order to rectify these issues, Target is cleaning the slate and starting over with a concept store that incorporates many next-generation features developed by the startups of Techstars — including robots. Target is also revamping dozens of stores in Los Angeles, but no robots there (yet).
The concept store could be open to the public in as little as two years, and would serve to gauge public response to these innovations. How will customers react to robots replacing human beings? Can machines provide high-quality service?
Ironically, the news of Target using robots came around the same time that a Target in Brooklyn moved to form a labor union for its pharmacy workers, making it the first time that Target would be employing union workers since the company’s inception.
Are the two announcements related? It’s hard not to see a connection.
Target Isn’t Alone In Using Robots
The retail industry is one of the largest industries in America, and service workers are on the verge of being made obsolete thanks to technological advancements like this.
This move by Target to automate its workers is just another example that highlights a growing trend in Big Retail: the need to eliminate humans from the equation in order to maximize production efficiency. Target isn’t the first, nor will it be the last.
Just look at how Amazon operates its warehouses.
Back in 2012, Amazon purchased a company that produces and maintains worker robots designed to move warehouse inventory at peak efficiency at all times. These robots, which are called Kiva robots and look like gigantic Roombas, autonomously traverse aisles and deliver pallets to human packers, ultimately cutting down on the number of human workers needed to run Amazon’s massive warehouses.
Robots are being used elsewhere in other capacities, too. Not even a year ago, Lowe’s employed its first robotic customer service agent (named OSHbot) at one of its home improvement centers in California. This robot can speak English and Spanish, helps you locate items, identifies products with a scanner, and has full access to the store’s inventory status at all times.
While it’s uncomfortable to entertain the idea of robots making humans obsolete, the economics make sense: if the robots perform better, they should replace humans.
In the long run, robots can be much cheaper. The research and development might cost a lot of money in the short term, but once breakthroughs are made, robots can cut costs like nothing else. They don’t need to be trained, or paid, and they can work around the clock without fatigue.
And with recent financial pressures — like the push to raise minimum wages in America — it’s easy to see why big corporations want to reduce their dependence on human labor as much as possible. Robots win in the long term.
Robots, Work, and the Future
Most people don’t want to think about this. Yes, it’s uncomfortable. Yes, it’s painful for those who lose jobs. Yes, it demeans human dignity to an extent. But there’s a silver lining to it all: it’s not the end of the world. No need to fear an apocalypse. Yet.
Society lived on when the Industrial Revolution arrived, and we’ll keep living on when the Robotic Revolution arrives. Even in the worst case scenario — that robots take over all human jobs — it’s likely that we’ll still be all right. We’ll just have to adapt.
Does Target’s plan to replace workers with robots scare you? What are your predictions for the future of human employment? Share your thoughts with us in the comments below!
Image Credits: Target by Ken Wolter via Shutterstock