I suffer the great misfortune of living near a busy Tesco Express store, which, absent of self-service checkouts, often makes the innocuous task of buying eggs feel like a test of one’s self-restraint.
While waiting for the two portraits of human inefficiency behind the till to serve 20 shoppers, glancing at my phone, I read that thousands of Tesco and Sainsbury’s jobs are being culled.
A cruel second passed imagining Tweedle Dee and Dum being replaced by robots. Or even redeployed to monitor self-service checkouts. Anything had to be better than waiting millennia to buy eggs.
Supermarket checkout jobs are just some of the thousands that will be washed away in the tide of automation. Middle class jobs – call-centre workers, insurance underwriters, and bank tellers – could be gone in a decade. Lower-skilled work of driving a taxi or laying bricks (there are robots that can lay 3,000 bricks a day) will be largely free of humans within two.
If the gloomiest studies are to be believed, there will be 800m job losses by 2030, with women hit the hardest.
However, while lamenting predicted job losses makes a good splash, it willfully neglects the boundless opportunities to create better ones.
Liberating human beings from the sort of tedium better suited to emotionless machines invariably improves their quality of life, happiness, and affinity with their output.
It’s a bit of a Marxist debunker, if one were ever needed. Through automation, workers will be less alienated from their work; capitalism will succeed without the exploitation of the working class. It’s not like robots can own the means to production, either. If they unite and revolt, that’s a different matter altogether.
For businesses, taking the opportunity to create efficiencies and improve productivity is critical.
Employing people for the sake of keeping them in work is the job of communist regimes, not profit-seeking institutions.
There’s a great Milton Friedman anecdote, in which workers digging a canal he visited were using hand-tools. Why? It was a “job creation programme”, he was informed. “If it’s jobs you want,” joked Friedman, “then you should give these workers spoons, not shovels.”
Having a call centre full of people doing a job achievable by a single computer is no different.
But, say critics: if 10 people can be replaced by one, serious questions about what happens to the remaining nine must be answered. Such uninspired assumption neglects the limits of human imagination.
We have literally no idea, nor can we accurately predict, the new types of work the future will hold. Web designers and data scientists were few and far between barely a decade ago. Today they are in high demand.
Naturally, the leap from spoon-shoveller to digger driver, call-centre worker to technician, will require education. According to the Davos set this week, 95 per cent of those at highest risk of losing their jobs can be retrained for new, potentially higher-paying, work.
Aviva is a good case study. The insurance giant made headlines last year by asking its workers whether their jobs could be done better by robots. Those who answered “yes” were re-trained for other roles in the company.
Not every company will be so considerate, and nor are they obliged to be. Consequentially, the debate is framed as a class war: wealth-creating businesses against their employees. But automation is little but the ongoing evolution of human efficiency.
It isn’t new, it will never end, and impeding its progress is futile. As technology develops, so every industry will begin to ask whether tasks can be performed better by, or with the assistance of, a robot.
Automation isn’t a threat. But those who treat it like one will be the first to suffer.
Read more: Here's how to stop a robot taking your job
Elliott Haworth is business features writer at City A.M.