05 Feb 2020 21:21 IST

Automation’s threat to jobs is real

When technology works, it does so flawlessly. It never goes on strike, or asks for a day off or a raise

The threat to jobs from automation is real and present. Just ask the thousands of people around the world who were forced into unemployment because an automated kiosk was installed in their place of work. In American grocery stores today, the number of kiosks far outpaces the number of human check out counters.

Nowhere is this trend more visible than at the world’s largest airports. At the new Beijing airport, kiosks can even process emigration checks for Chinese departing the country — humans are optional.

For years, obtaining a boarding pass at home, and saving it on your mobile has been so standard that we don’t even think about how convenient a feature this actually is. The boarding pass can be securely stored in high definition in your Apple Wallet. At the airport, you simply show your mobile screen to the gate agent to drop your bags off. And at airport security, you press your phone down on a reader which scans your Wallet image. A green light indicates to the officer that you’re cleared to enter the passenger screening area. Technology has limited human to human interaction to the barest minimum.

More machines than men

On a recent trip on AirAsia from Bengaluru, I experienced the Indian version of this automation. I could not obtain a boarding pass at home, but I could check in 48 hours before the flight, a welcome departure from western airlines which limit check ins to only 24 hours before departure. At the airport, I showed the CRPF officer a pdf copy of the boarding pass which I had previously saved to my phone.

Once inside, I used a kiosk to print my boarding pass and baggage tags, and stood in line to drop my two checked bags off. Here, in a variation from western airports, I had to interact directly with the feeder to the X-Ray machine, placing my boarding pass for a scanner to authenticate me and placing one bag after the next onto the belt as the machine connected the dots. The machine then spat out a receipt for the bags even as I saw them vanish from sight. Other than the few AirAsia agents who were hovering to assist passengers, where were all the other employees who previously had jobs checking passengers and bags in?

In the US, Delta Airlines is implementing newer technologies which not only impact the labour force, but vastly improve the travel experience. As I waited to board a flight last month from Dallas to Detroit, my phone pinged twice, announcing that both of my checked bags were now in the belly of the plane. While this feature appears inconsequential on its face, the messages revealed that Delta has invested millions in its infrastructure to make such an announcement even possible.

Every bag checked must be identified using an RFID tag linked to the travel record. Baggage handlers are provided with RFID scanners to log each suitcase as it either enters the belly of an aircraft (for smaller planes) or the large aluminium containers which one often sees being loaded onto widebody aircraft by scissor lifts. Wireless technology again updates the customer record, and lo! You get the message that your bags are onboard. This information is of great relief to travellers because they don’t have to nurse doubts that their bags did not make their flight.

Facial recognition, EVs

In Detroit, as I lined up to board my connection to Amsterdam, I again got two messages that my bags had transferred to the new widebody plane. Walking up to the gate agent, I didn’t have to show my boarding pass on my iPhone. She asked me to look at a camera which scanned my face, compared it with my passport photo already on file and gave a green light a lot faster than a human could ascertain that I was indeed the traveller. The agent really wasn’t doing much other than to hand over a small piece of paper which prints to confirm that I was authenticated to travel. Expect her position to be eliminated altogether in a few months.

American companies are investing heavily to improve technologies, reduce consumption of products, and impact the workforce. This week, the big logistics giant United Parcel Service (UPS) announced that it was buying 10,000 electric vehicles from a British supplier, Arrival. The announcement seemed to compete directly with Amazon, which stunned the EV industry last September when it said that it would not only invest in a Michigan startup Revian, known only because it made electric pickup trucks, but also spend $4 billion to buy up to 10,000 EV vans for its Prime delivery service. EVs have far fewer parts than a traditional van, so, in two strokes, two of the world’s largest companies heavily impacted manufacturing and consumption worldwide — and therefore jobs — but also helped lower pollution in large cities where these EVs would be deployed.

Heavy-duty EVs, like buses and vans, are extremely promising to combat climate change. They are used on local routes, within city and suburban areas, with stop-and-go schedules — but their engines do not have to be idled as drivers do on current diesel vehicles while they deliver or pick up packages. Second, their large size allows for additional battery packs to be used, giving them impressive driving ranges — a problem which has limited the adoption of electric cars especially for long-distance travel. The large EVs always return to their garage at night where a full charge gets them ready for service the following day.

Self-drive delivery vans

UPS went even further. It announced a partnership with Waymo, Google’s self-drive automation unit, to use autonomous Chrysler Pacifica minivans that will take packages to their destinations from Phoenix-area UPS stores. Imagine that. Ghost vehicles with no drivers, navigating Phoenix streets. It is still unclear who will carry the package to the customer's doorstep.

This is the threat that technology brings. When it works, it does so nearly flawlessly. Technology never complains nor is it ever afraid. It never asks for a day off nor a raise. And it doesn’t go on strike, as the French transport unions did, for more than 6 weeks, completely paralysing Paris and the various towns in the provinces. So intense was the protest complaining about Macron’s proposal to raise the age of pensions from 60 to 62 that the French government was forced to cave in the end. But the strike continues because the unions don’t want just a suspension of Macron’s proposal but a full, outright withdrawal.

France and the US: Two countries separated by a big body of water — and a difference in vision towards labour that’s just as wide. The way things are trending, France is likely to be on the losing side.