(This article originally appeared in the Washington Times)
Eleven million unfilled jobs. The “Great Resignation.” An unprecedented labor shortage. It’s the biggest problem for American businesses today. So how are American businesses responding? They’re replacing people with technology. Sorry, workers.
Why do this? Because robots don’t need child care, health insurance, retirement plans or “unlimited paid time off.” They show up for work every day. They do their work accurately. They don’t complain about discrimination, harassment or “not feeling safe” in their offices because someone with a different opinion about Joe Rogan also works there.
Robots are simply easier and less costly to manage than employees. Business managers know that. And as the costs of these technologies continue to rapidly fall, the return on investment becomes increasingly worthwhile. All of these reasons are why companies are replacing workers with robots at a fast pace.
I wrote about this trend more than six months ago. Here’s an update.
Restaurant chains Chili’s and Buffalo Wild Wings are deploying robots that replace servers and bussers in their dining rooms, as well as fryers and cooks in their kitchens. Burger chain White Castle has replaced the person who makes French fries with a robot. A Cambridge, Massachusetts, BBQ joint has replaced its food runner with a robot. A California Denny’s is replacing its servers with robots. The owner of a cafe in Utah has replaced workers with digital order kiosks. Starbucks is replacing workers with self-service cafes. Get ready restaurant workers: 50% of U.S. restaurant operators plan to deploy automation to replace you in the next two to three years according to a recent Lightspeed study.
It’s not looking great for workers who deliver stuff either. On the roads and in the air, Walmart is already operating autonomous box trucks that have been delivering products on a seven-mile loop for 12 hours straight (“Taking the driver out is the holy grail of this technology,” the CEO of the company who makes these trucks told CNBC). Walmart is also delivering products by drone, which is predicted to be a $115 billion industry by 2035. 7-Eleven has launched an autonomous commercial delivery service in California.
A self-driving tech startup is delivering packages across 80 miles of roads.
Many service and warehouse workers may want to start treating their bosses better. A window-washing robot is replacing window washers on office buildings in New York City. A robot is replacing beauticians by performing lash extensions, manicures and even hairstyling on its own. A French company sells “shelf-climbing robots” that can pick items as high as 12 meters from the floor. A robot called “Stretch” now loads 800 heavy boxes per hour. Giant supermarkets are replacing warehouse workers with robots that gather items for bagging. On the farm, John Deere will soon be selling driverless tractors to farmers and another robotics company recently received $70 million to replace workers who have to be on call 24 hours a day to feed cows. Robots that methodically pick up sections of pipe and move them precisely over an oil rig’s drilling center are replacing workers in the petroleum industry.
As these robots proliferate, a growing number of “robotics-as-a-service” platforms, which includes Amazon Web Services, are providing a robust destination for startups and established tech firms to develop and then distribute their solutions to millions of businesses worldwide.
Employees, labor unions, pro-worker advocates and workers’ rights supporters, I’m warning you: U.S. businesses are replacing you.
From Oct. 1, 2020, to Oct. 1, 2021, usage of automated robotics increased dramatically across a number of industry sectors, particularly in hospitals (+2,500%) and education (+426%), according to one study, and contrary to popular belief, another study finds that 81% of people say that robotics will “lead to more meaningful work.” Another study finds that 75% of B2B sales organizations will be replacing sales and service reps with AI tools within the next few years. Research shows that automation could make 12 million jobs redundant.
“What’s new is the pace of this automation,” writes Valerias Bangert on VentureBeat. “Machines are now becoming faster, better, and cheaper than humans at an alarming rate. As a result, we’re seeing a fundamental shift in the economy where machines are starting to do the creative jobs of human beings.”
If you were to ask my clients if they could get their work done with no people you’d find a great majority of them would say “yes please.” It’s not that they don’t love their employees. But considering how difficult it is to find them, pay them and make them happy, many business owners would prefer to work with machines. And, based on these stories above, that’s happening at a very fast pace.