Amazon Go: Automation Isn't The Problem, Corporate Greed Is

I work for an opinion website – my job is to take a position on headline news and then try to build an argument. I’ll admit freely that I don’t start every article with a clear opinion. My usual process is to read broad coverage until I start to be able to identify a repeating narrative. After that, I figure out my gut instinct on the thing, do some supporting research and take a position.

The quality of those positions has varied in my time writing this way; some I look back on with great pride, while others have been misses so wide that I question how I could ever have thought the things I wrote down. Often my initial impulse is wrong.

Such was the case today, with the news of Amazon GO, the company’s new offering of a cashierless shopping experience.

The store is modeled after a convenience store, except that there is no checkout. Customers enter by swiping a barcode generated by the Amazon GO app, after that it’s as simple as putting the things you want in a shopping bag and leaving. Hundreds of cameras operating around the store track each item you remove from a shelf and charge you when you leave the store with them. All without the hassle of lining up and checking out.

A reporter for the New York Times tried to steal from the store – with their permission – and the software caught him and charged him for the product.

This whole arrangement set off the Orwellian alarm bells in my mind. How could a corporation monitoring purchasing through surveillance be a good thing? Do I want these people tracking my buying habits? Do I want them scanning my face to see whether I am indeed the person who should be charged for that yogurt? When will this dystopia just send me the things I need before I need them, charging me pre-emptively?

Of course, this was not the angle to take. Amazon has opted for rather primitive software to assess which customer is which. Unfortunately, it does not recognize faces and will not suggest products either. As to the whole concern of surveillance, practically every retail outlet in the country is now equipped with a pretty comprehensive surveillance system, this one just has loss prevention built in.

No, this tack towards dystopian alarmism was not going to work. I went back to my contrarian drawing board and instead opted for the populist approach. Surely the automation of the checkout system is bad for employment, replacing cashiers with a system of cameras and AI.

While this is very much the case for automated driving – which is predicted to cost millions of professional drivers their livelihoods in the near future – it is not the case with Amazon GO. The company claims that employees that would need to work in the store have simply been reallocated to different departments. Instead of cashiers, there are customer service staff walking the floor, helping people find products and understand the new system. There are employees devoted to restocking shelves and even one designated to checking IDs before customers can purchase alcohol.

It seems that automating the checkout process was motivated by concerns of expedience and loss prevention and will not – in the long run – cost many jobs.

So why did this story still stick in my craw? What is so nefarious about a company which last year came to employ 500,000 workers?

The answer lies in the quality of labor.

While Amazon has yet to release the wages paid at its pilot Amazon GO store in Seattle, it is safe to assume that they are in no rush to compensate those employees better than the frontline workers at their many warehouses around the world.

An ‘associate’ at an Amazon ‘fulfillment center’ (finally, something genuinely Orwellian) can expect to earn the minimum wage mandated by the government where it is located. In the report cited here, the worker out of Swansea, Wales earned £6.69/hr ($9.33 USD) or £0.19 above the minimum wage. This is after Amazon received an £8.8 million grant to open the Swansea facility in the first place.

The whole account, which really warrants a read, details the 50-hour work week expected of Amazon’s seasonal staff, the grueling physical conditions of the job, and the cherry-on-top detail that 15,000 people are temporarily employed by Amazon in the UK annually, only to lose their jobs after Christmas.

Different accounts detail unrealistic standards like being asked to pick one item every 30 seconds for packing. Shifts are 10 hours long and breaks are timed to the minute. Bathroom breaks are discouraged and being sick for more than three days in a three-month period is a fireable offense. The list goes on, all indignities at the price of barely above minimum wage.

This the reality for which Amazon GO is the harbinger. Not that there will be fewer jobs, but that there will be more bad jobs. In the first 4 months of last year alone, department stores in the US saw a 26.8K decline in jobs but the unemployment rate hovered at a steady 4.1%. How is this possible?

Employers like Amazon pick up the jobs on the cheap, with a larger and larger portion of the population being displaced by automation into fields that require no training or expertise and are therefore valued at the lowest legal limits.

So, the question becomes – who is the bad guy in this scenario? Personally, I don’t think it's unreasonable to automate tasks that can be automated. Why risk human lives in coal mines if it can be done more safely with a robot? By the same token, stores of the future need not worry about theft if Amazon’s technology becomes more widespread. What a marvelous way to save a buck.

No, the problem is not with technology and automation but with corporate greed. With the notion that because people are desperate for employment, it is acceptable to compensate that employment at the bare minimum, we descend into an untenable economic quagmire. When Amazon employees can’t afford to shop on Amazon where will they go?

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