The rise of the machines

More on their way
More on their way

As I venture into my local supermarket what is clear to see is the increase in self-service checkouts. More and more supermarkets are replacing human labour with computers. Clearly this is related to cost and labour costs are a concern for some firms, so they are potentially saving millions if they replace till assistants with computers. In a competitive market, other firms will match their competitors, so my local supermarket is TESCO; if I go to the closest Sainsburys the increase in self-service checkouts is there too, same with the closest Asda and Waitrose respectively. This speaks volumes in a time where unemployment is relatively high and several household incomes contract as the burden of deficit reduction takes a toll on many low income earners, whose propensity to consume is reduced, even though a larger proportion of their income goes on living. Moreover, it must shatter morale in an organisation if you are told that computers are replacing colleagues.

It should be noted however that firms could suggest that they are prolonging the majority of jobs if they make crucial savings in this area. Undoubtedly some jobs will be lost if supermarkets continue to install self-service tills, but the savings could translate to more jobs being saved in the long run. Also, productivity could rise due to more personnel being available to assist customers, replenish stock levels and assist customers who are using trollies.

What the rise in self-service tills highlights is the rapid technological advancements in today’s society. A society where computers are critical to today’s workforce and this leads onto greater dependency as a result. In car factories, machines can complete tasks it could have taken several hours, even days for a group of humans to complete. So as time elapses, so must innovations in improving productivity and efficiency. This will come at a cost; human labour in some organisations, in the not too distant future will become virtually obsolete.

One could argue this is nothing new, of course. The Luddites of the 19th century staged several virulent protests against lower skilled, lower paid workers and they actively destroyed machines that replaced (what they deemed) their high skilled labour. There is no modern day equivalent to the Luddites, the point is more poignant than ever, labour is being firstly by lower paid workers and then eventually by machines.

Private firms besides obeying the law have no moral obligation to serve society. If they chose to do so, it is of their shareholders request or of their own freewill. Therefore, the gloomy economic climate and the high unemployment levels have little impact on the firm unless they are directly impacted by it. So it is in their own interest to do what they feel is right by their own business and reducing costs and therefore increasing profitability is their goal. How does one achieve this? By seeking efficient methods to solve costly problems. The rise in computers replacing human input is a global issue and it is directly related to unemployment levels. Paul Krugman writing in the New York Times on December 9 suggests

“There’s no question that in some high-profile industries, technology is displacing workers of all, or almost all, kinds, many of the jobs being displaced are high-skill and high-wage.”

This helps to understand why private firms have no moral obligation to help solve the current global unemployment problem because they are looking to help themselves and do what they need to do to ensure they make it through these challenging times. The cost is more unemployment.

Getting more people back into work is the government’s aim. The onus lies with the individual to ensure he or she is deemed valuable to their respective organisation. We are however living in difficult times and proving your value is proving tougher than usual, what is clear is the fact that firms are only going to look forward, so the computers are here to stay. What individuals must ensure is that they are working with and not being replaced by them.