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Facing a jobs ‘apocalypse’

Dave Ransom  |  Issue: May | June 2017
Automated weed control

Automated weed control
HortiBot is the machinery that helps the farmers with weeds. With an eco-friendly wee-removing attachment, the robot recognizes and eliminate up to 25 different kinds of weeds.
Photo: intorobotics.com

 

Trump’s immigration policies are accelerating the replacement of humans by robots

Bruce Taylor is one of the biggest growers in California. Never a great friend of the workers whose labor has made his fortune, he told the AgTech Innovation Forum in Salinas recently that Trump’s immigration policies “are going to force us to solve our labor problems faster.”

His solution is robotics. He’s experimenting with a harvester that uses a water jet to cut leaf crops like lettuce, replacing workers that bend and use a knife. And that’s after a Lettuce Bot thins the heads — 5,000 plants a minute.

But Trump’s immigration policies are just accelerating the replacement of humans with robots. That’s been underway for more than decade and now is gaining steam — not only in agriculture but in every industry where Latinos and the rest of the world’s workforce can be found.

In California’s Central Valley, the huge ware-houses of e-commerce giants like Amazon have recently created thousands of jobs where almost the only option before was working in the fields.

 

Mower to cut vegetables

Mower to cut vegetables will replace the hand of agricultural workers.

 

But Amazon now has 45,000 robots working in those warehouses — with more to come.

New warehouses are ever more robotic. When Skechers opened a big new shoe warehouse in California’s Moreno Valley recently, it shut down five others and cut its workforce by half. “Spotting a human on the premises can feel like an accomplishment,” says the Los Angeles Times.

This is part of the seismic shift underway in retail trade — from brick-and-mortar stores to buying on the internet. In states like California, where being bilingual is a hiring plus, tens of thousands of Latinos once found jobs in malls.

Now that is changing fast. Not only are the big chains like Macy’s and Penney closing stores (with Sears and Kmart near bankruptcy) but many of the smaller niche shops are also clos-ing outlets — or closing down entirely.

Here’s the short list: The Limited, Footlocker, Office Depot, Abercrombie & Fitch, Radio Shack, HHGregg, Pier One, Staples, Sports Authority, Bebe, even Tiffany.

Business Insider calls it “the retail apocalypse” and forecasts that “as stores close, many shopping malls will be forced to shut down as well.” Nearly a third of malls are threatened, it says. Already, some mall landlords are walking away from their investments.

 

Stores Closing

Stores Closing

 

But, dying malls and robotic warehouses aside, truck driving should remain a viable job, right?

In your dreams. Self-driving trucks are already being used in mining operations, and a Silicon Valley-Detroit joint venture has already auton-omously delivered beer in Colorado.

While that truck had a police escort and a just-in-case driver aboard, industry executives ex-pect to have fully automated trucks on the road within five or 10 years. Nearly two million truck drivers in the U.S. alone could be affected.

Was driving a cab for Uber your back-up job — or your real one? Uber now owns the company that made the beer-truck delivery and is hard at work developing autonomous cars to replace its drivers — as are Amazon, Facebook, Google, Tesla, Ford, General Motors, and the like.

Which leaves burger flipping. You can watch Miso Robotics’ Flippy the Robot at work on the web — and soon see it in person at the Cali-Burger chain’s Pasadena location. If it works out, Caliburger plans to have Flippies in place in 50 restaurants within two years.

Seriously — and we have to take this very, very seriously — we are seeing the end of the job world as we know it. While forecasters dif-fer as to how many jobs will be roboticized (40-80 percent) and how rapidly it will happen (10-50 years), the trend is disturbingly clear.

And if we don’t manage it, it will manage us.

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