As the industry is evolving rapidly due to technological advancement, retailers have no option but to implement automation to keep their businesses survive. There have been ongoing debates on how morally acceptable is automation in the retail industry: How much jobs should be automated? Will automation and artificial intelligence replace human? How much can retailers benefit from automation? How will it affect the relevant stakeholders: employees, customers, suppliers, etc.?
The advancement of retail sector by automation
Most people will tend to associate the increase of unemployment with the implementation of automation in various fields of job sectors. Hence, we tend to oversee the fact that automation also has the potential to create jobs. In the retail sector, e-commerce was created due to the advancement of technology and implementation of automation. E-commerce, according to an analysis conducted by the Progressive Policy Institute in the US in 2007, has created up to 400,000 retail jobs, far outweighing the 147,000 jobs lost in physical-stores. Another report by the Wall Street Journal on Amazon in 2017 states that not only Amazon has been able to increase the total number of retail jobs, but also have made their employees more productive through the use of automation and even managed to pay them better.
With the growing demand on the need for cost savings and rising expectations for better services, the implementation of retail automation has shown a growing trend among retailers. In retails, automation can be used to devise the system where routine tasks take care of themselves, allowing more focus to be given to other critical tasks. For example, Walmart has deployed shelf-scanning robots to audit its stores so the employees will not have to do simple repetitive tasks, and instead contribute more to customer services. The employees since then has been advocates for the robots as they find the implementation of the robots has eased their overall jobs. Even the customers didn’t think that the robots are bothering them during shopping. To further support the robots, Walmart has said it will not lead to job losses and the robots will be used to collect data to improve efficiency.
Furthermore, with the advancement of technology, robots have been more flexible and are programmable to do more tasks than ever. They are even able to interact with people which is beneficial to retailers. Therefore, the introduction of the robot as customer assistant has gained more popularity. Softbank in Japan has introduced a humanoid robot named Pepper. It has been adopted in many retails shops not only due to its ability to communicate and interact with customers, but it can also detect and show emotions. The robots not only attracting local customers, but also from the rest of the world as the robots have become a tourist attraction based on an article from TokyoCheapo.
To conclude, from a ‘utilitarian’ perspective, we would strongly support the implementation of automations in the retail sector as we have suggested that it has the potential to bring more benefits for retailers and their stakeholders. As long as the development of automations is planned carefully following the ethical guidelines, we believe automation will be morally acceptable in the future in more than just retail sector.
The automation of manufacturing process are putting retail jobs in risk
Due to the growth of technology and other market demand, unemployment has increased as manpower in many aspects are replaced by robot machining. The increase of productivity reduces process time and minimises labour and human defects. Therefore many manufacturers started to use automated technology in the processes. However, the increasing demand for the automation does not always have beneficial effects. According to the office for national statistics, the number of jobless rose by 46,000 in 2018. A forecast of 20% current jobs will be replaced by automation in the UK.
The change in automation will require higher skill workers who are directly linked to the current workers but low skill workers will be unemployed. The action of the company is against the no harm principle. This principle states its free to do anything unless harm is done to others which workers displacement is harming (Poel and Royakkers, 2011). Our economy is based on the premise of people consume, as automation taking over jobs which results in fewer jobs available to humans, there would be fewer consumers resulting in changes in human standard of living and world economy in the long run. When the rate reaches epidemic proportion, the consequence will be a massive economic depression.
The total cost of operation would be raised due to high initial costs and variable development cost. These often related to the innovation and high maintenance of the system. Since the machines require many other computing technologies, the investment would be expensive.
The flexibility of the automated machine is another limitation. Machines are good at doing narrowly defined, and predictable tasks. However, it will face troubles when coming to the complicated work as they are mostly programmed and perform in repetitive tasks. It indicates the versatility of an employee is much higher than a machine. Automation and machines are prone to cyber attack or viruses. Companies can deploy viruses and malware to sabotage progress and operation of their rivals, resulting in losses in capital or assets. As technology progresses, machine learning will be more familiar where digital machine learns and improves themselves by analysing data such as human behaviour. Self-learning machines use these data to improve themselves and eventually to replace humans at a job where an actual professional human is not required. For example, a San Francisco company ‘iCEO’ provides project management software that aims to eliminate middle management positions. This software first decides which jobs could be automated and which other jobs require actual professional humans at a project, the software then assembles a team of freelancers over the internet for these jobs. After receiving works from freelancers, these machine will analyse them and ultimately replacing freelancers as well. This shows that human freedom is threatened due to technocracy which is stated under the Moralizing Technology principle from Poel (‘Ethics, technology and engineering‘ Poel and Royakkers, Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011).