The familiar blue garbage truck made its rounds in a Dallas suburb last week. There appeared to be nothing different — except when the truck stopped in front of a home to pick up recyclable trash.
Usually, two workers run to the curbside to empty a huge green trashcan into the enormous holding bucket of the truck. But this time around, a robotic arm extended out into the curb, picked the can and neatly emptied its contents into the bucket. No human stepped out. The arm was being silently controlled by just one worker, who was standing in the warmth of the truck on the passenger side. The second pickup worker — who used to be a mainstay while emptying cans until as recently as two weeks ago — was nowhere to be seen.
This is how technology is killing jobs that are repetitive, manual and do not require as much skill. It is a dangerous trend which threatens the livelihood of millions around the world at a time when there just aren’t sufficient jobs for the college educated.
Until a decade ago, obtaining a job as a cashier at a grocery store in the US was considered a decent start for someone with no college degree. But this began to slowly change when the industry started installing self-checkout kiosks, eliminating the need to hire cashiers. By 2014, these kiosks were so widespread that over $1 trillion per year in goods were being transacted through them, with little or no human interaction.
Now, even growth in self-checkout kiosk deployment has slowed. “Scan and Go” apps have turned customer smartphones into a wandering supermarket. Shoppers simply use their phones to scan items off store shelves as they put it in their shopping carts, and see a running total of items on their phones. When done, they pay within the apps even when they are in a store aisle, completely bypassing the checkout counter.
Upon exit, they show their e-receipt to the security guard, which is the only interaction a customer has with a store employee during the entire shopping visit.
US grocery stores are now deploying “order online but free pickup at the store” services too. They could have offered services, like India’s BigBasket.com , to deliver groceries home, employing thousands of driver and delivery teams to help the time-strapped US consumer.
But labour in the US is expensive for home delivery, and studies have shown that an average US consumer will not pay these delivery costs over and above that of the groceries. There are a few companies in the big cities that deliver groceries home (like Instacart in San Francisco), but the service has not yet caught on in a big way.
Instead, offering free pickup at the store is an easier way of retaining customers, because much of the burden of walking the aisles and bagging items into shopping bags is done by the store personnel for free. All the customer has to do is pull into a separate area of the parking lot, where the order is loaded into the customer’s car. This saves the customer valuable minutes and the expense of having someone deliver the goods home.
But how does the store know you are in the parking lot? When these services started a few months ago, one would have to call the store about 15 minutes prior and the store attendant would come out to meet you when you called a second time to announce that you were in the lot. Now, there’s an app.
You just tap a button on your phone to tell the store you are on your way. The store then tracks your movement by GPS and knows exactly when you are close to the lot. Magically, the attendant comes out to your car at the exact time you are pulling into the parking space. Not only is the store clerk’s job (to receive phone calls and direct attendants to meet customers) eliminated, but customer satisfaction is enhanced because technology is better able to match attendants with your arrival time.
Say Hi to Eric
Two weeks ago, I got a call from Austin from a man who identified himself as Eric. “Hello, may I speak to Mr Rao?” he asked. “This is Rao,” I said. “Well hello,” Eric replied and explained that he was conducting a survey about home electricity use and wanted my input. Would it be ok if I spent a few minutes?
The man was so polite that I agreed. Eric’s intonations were near perfect. His pauses, even his laughs, were spot on. It was only about two minutes after we started talking that I realised that Eric was not a human. He was a machine!
I asked him to repeat something, and he did so using the exact same words, with the same pauses and laughs, all intact! I tried this again, and the response was identical. I hung up on Eric — something I would never do to a human.
Much has been written about how people — those with just a class XII education — who would work in call centres are finding it difficult to get jobs or even hold on to them. These individuals were trained to speak in artificial western accents and even make idle conversations (“Wow, it’s cold today in Chicago, isn’t it?”), all in an effort to sell a new credit card to an unsuspecting customer.
With Eric, there’s no need for such people. His accent is flawless. The back-end of Eric’s system is connected to a cloud where any question you ask triggers an almost-accurate response. Had you agreed with Eric about Chicago’s weather and remarked, “Oh, I just hope it doesn’t snow tonight!”, Eric would have intelligently responded, “Yeah, me too, but unfortunately the forecast calls for two to three inches!”
After Eric scouts out a potential customer with this friendly banter, he routes him/her to a US-based call centre, where a real human takes over the rest of the transaction. This is powerful, because hundreds of thousands of call centre employees in India can never compete with the likes of Eric, who will only get better, and more accurate, with time.
Peter Sondergaard of Gartner said, in an interview with Computerworld in October 2014, that “One in three jobs will be converted to software, robots and smart machines by 2025.” As though things are not already bad enough, the world clearly will look very different nine years from now.