Amazon & “The People Problem”

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Amazon just announced it’ll spend money on retraining its employees for high-tech work at the company or elsewhere, all but confirming that a third of its workers will lose their jobs to robots.

The $700 million initiative, spread over six years, pales in comparison to the $800 million it spent in the last quarter of this year alone to automate its warehouses and shipping.

Amazon deserves credit for acknowledging this transformation, and doing things to help ameliorate its impact on people (it has other worker training programs already underway). But the blunt and cruel business reality is that it rushing to push human beings off of its balance sheet, as are most other companies.

Workers are complicated, unreliable, and often difficult to find or replace. They’re the largest, last remaining category of costs. Machines that can be bought, work exactly according to specifications 24/7, and require no health benefits or annual picnics promise more profits, if not happier customers also.

“The People Problem” is a top-line agenda item for businesses today.

Evangelists for automation argue that letting robots do simple, mind-numbingly unchallenging work will be a gift to people, freeing them to pursue other work that is more rewarding (and which utilizes the qualities humans possess and robots don’t).

I want to believe in a future wherein those human qualities are realized — even if I can’t quite think of which ones would stay beyond the reach of intelligent and learning machines — and where people write more poetry and, well, whatever. Maybe such a world is impossible to imagine because those jobs and pursuits are beyond our experience. We won’t know them until we see them.

Or maybe that world will never come to be, so it’s useful to ponder an alternate future that’s based on our past and present experience.

Workers are being used right now to train robots; by watching them perform tasks, robots can learn how to do what people do, and do so faster and then more reliably (work scenarios can be played endlessly while humans have to sleep, so the robotic learning curve is much steeper than ours). 

Once those robots are qualified to take over, those human trainers will be out of their jobs. Teaching them skills for other positions will, ideally, provide employment, but only do so for a time…since businesses will be putting robots to work learning and taking over other positions, too.

It’s like there’s a race between human beings and robots to prove which set of workers offer the most value. Robots are going to win that race, and Amazon is doing its best to make sure its robots are among them. 

I want to be hopeful that this future will be full of wonder for those of us saddled with organic brains. 

But it’s interesting that there is explicit detail on “The People Problem” and businesses are spending huge sums of money to take it off their balance sheets.

If the future is going to be so great, where’s the meat on “The People Opportunity?”

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