CSP Magazine

Opinion: Are Humans Even Necessary?

The age of automation: We know all about it and live it constantly. Smartphones enable us to govern our stores from a device no larger than an index card. We can place orders big and small with just a finger’s tap. We can travel with a wallet free of cash.

Sounds cool. Yet something is wrong, terribly wrong. We just elected a president, in part, because he promises to bring or create thousands of manufacturing jobs on our shores. He pledges to exhale fresh life into the coal industry and speaks of an era in which hardened men in Detroit built cars with their hands.

There’s only one problem: That era is mostly gone, and it ain’t coming back.

The Economist, a thoughtful publication that captures business life in the United States, Europe and beyond, dedicated a recent issue to the following problem: how to survive in the age of automation. It is the fundamental question of our generation.

The special report is full of labor statistics, forecasts, global analysis and economic sobriety. It confronts maxims such as “Learning Is Earning” and grapples with the widening gap between the skills we will need vs. the skills we have.

Although the report does not speak to our industry directly, there is much that can be extrapolated. And the truth is, some of our industry’s top one-percenters are already planning for the following changes:

“Robotization” of basic tasks. We’re less than a decade away from when robots will assume many of today’s most tedious—yet necessary—chores: stocking inventory, manning registers, pumping gas, prepping sandwiches, brewing coffee.

Sensors. Shelf sensors will inform us when product is low and heating and cooling gauges are off , and which products customers are not only picking up but also looking at, thanks to orbital/retinal sensors.

Intercommunication devices. Alexa will soon have plenty of voice-activated friends. Soon you’ll talk to your devices and your devices will talk to each other in ways most of us can still not quite comprehend.

Such devices, coupled with autonomous vehicles, will also yield profound changes in supply-chain logistics.

One could legitimately conclude that human beings have never been so unnecessary. Flesh and blood stands in the way of seamless automation and perfection.

Well, almost. David Deming of Harvard University contends that while technology will automate job-specific tasks, it is less effective in occupations requiring social skills, and is unable to participate in cooperative, team-oriented projects.

Economists and think tanks fear that the undereducated populous will be further doomed as more manual, less-education-required jobs disappear, replaced by automation.

This means age-old minimum-wage debates and management-labor spats will be largely moot. In its place is a stark question: Will a vast percentage of our population be equipped to participate in the new economy? If not, we’re in trouble.

Many global consultancies are raising the following question: What do people need to succeed in their jobs? Some factors to consider:

Schooling. Traditional in-school education will, by itself, be insufficient to meet light-speed changes in technology and ruptures in globalization. Successful companies will face greater pressure to invest in continuous training through programs such as LinkedIn’s Lynda.com and massive open online courses such as Udacity and Coursera.

Intelligence. There are two modes of intelligence: fluid, the ability to reason in an abstract way, and crystallized, the deployment of accumulated knowledge. Kids fresh out of college possess knowledge in the latest devices and are mentally adroit. Put a 20-year-old against a 70-year-old on “Jeopardy!” and the former will display faster reflexes and quicker recall. The elder will compensate for cognitive decline through reserves of greater knowledge and experiences. Collectively, the two represent a robust tag-team that unites legacy employees with fresh-to-market eyes.

Hybrid jobs. There’s no better example than the store employees at Trader Joe’s. One day they might be guiding product samples, and the next they’re ringing up transactions, stocking inventory or working in the back room.

For America to properly integrate automation with social skills, our educational system will need to adapt. And so will you.

As jobs become more complex and multifaceted, you’ll need to see yourselves as not only employers but also extensions of the educational system, demanding and supporting the need of your workforce to acquire the continually evolving skills to meet tomorrow’s needs.

Mitch Morrison is vice president and director of Winsight’s Retail Executive Platform. Reach him at mmorrison@winsightmedia.com.

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