Joe Henderson: What are humans supposed to do after machines take over their jobs?

Automation creep has bled into every element of commerce. And with every robot, more workers are deemed irrelevant. Where does it stop?
Published June 19

Michael Moore’s groundbreaking 1989 film Roger and Me had a segment that showed a robot alongside a worker on the assembly line at General Motors.

The bit was called “Me and My Buddy” and it was from the GM propaganda machine, painting a false picture of how humans the machines would work together in harmony and productivity. They made it sound like the American dream.

Except the dream came out of corporate headquarters, designed to eliminate as many of those annoying humans (and their paychecks) as possible in the name increased profitability and shareholder value.

In the 30 years since that image, automation creep has bled into every element of commerce. And with every robot, more workers are deemed irrelevant. Where does it stop?

Hint: it doesn’t.

As the Washington Post reported in a recent story carried by the Tampa Bay Times, Walmart is aggressively expanding the use of technology to do jobs humans used to perform. Robots now do janitorial work at some Walmart stores. They can stock shelves.

They don’t take coffee breaks. They don’t require health insurance, although I guess someone has to keep them charged up.

According to Forbes, robots are in about 5,000 of the more than 11,000 Walmart stores. You can bet that more are on the way. It’s already happening. Walmart cashiers are slowly being eliminated by self-checkout lines.

READ MORE: Walmart experiments with AI to monitor stores in real time

Let’s not just point the finger at Walmart, though. People laughed a few years ago when Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos said his company was developing drones that could deliver packages to happy homes across the land.

No one is laughing now. Amazon is testing a self-driving delivery device named Scout that already is in operation in Snohomish County, Wash. The U.S. Postal Service is exploring that as well.

It probably is inevitable that some sort of automated delivery system will be in wide use at the massive Amazon distribution centers throughout Florida, including here in the Tampa Bay area.

CNBC reported this in a story headlined, “Here’s how Amazon robots could make the deliveryman extinct.”

Don’t forget self-driving vehicles, either. The Wall Street Journal reported in 2018 about a study that estimates nearly 300,000 long-distance trucking jobs could face extinction thanks to autonomous driving technology in the next 25 years.

Oh, that won’t happen this week, or even in the short-term future. But it will happen, and that begs another question: What are the humans supposed to do after machines take over their jobs?

The easy answer is they should be retrained for something more productive, but that’s not as easily done if you’re a middle-aged Amazon delivery person with a mortgage and kids.

And it’s not just those on the lower end of the economic structure that are at risk. People with advanced college degrees in such fields as human resources are finding their livelihoods threatened by machines with artificial intelligence. The machines are programmed to scan resumes and focus on specific words that fit what a company might be looking for.

I’m pretty sure that’s a textbook definition of irony — machines screening humans.

Companies like Walmart don’t see it that way, of course. The company defends its robots, saying the machines perform mundane tasks and free humans for something more productive. The company line is that the robots aren’t there to replace flesh-and-blood employees.

Well, we will see.

READ MORE: Robots coming to some Tampa Bay Walmarts as part of renovations

But there are estimates that automation and artificial intelligence might eliminate as many as 25 percent of jobs currently done by humans. It makes you wonder what the economy of the future will look like.

Put it this way: It would be a good time to learn how to program and maintain these machines and the software that runs them. That’s because as another renowned cybernetic collective known as the Borg in the Star Trek franchise used to say, resistance is futile.

Email Joe Henderson at JoeHTampa