Out of all the political voices that we hear, only Democratic presidential candidate Andrew Yang discusses the impact of automation. Not only that, he has multiple solutions for this changing economic paradigm, notably his signature policy of the “Freedom Dividend.” But is automation the threat that we are making it out to be?
On the surface, it seems that automation would replace us all. Go into any McDonald’s store and you’re faced with two options: go to a traditional counter which is operated by a human or use the automated kiosk. For those that have grown up in the digital age, the kiosk seems the more efficient and therefore superior approach.
But it’s not just simple fare like fast food where automation has changed the business landscape. Factories now utilizes robotics for various manufacturing functions. Furthermore, e-commerce giant Amazon is constantly experimenting and tweaking its drone delivery system.
Everywhere you look, automation is everywhere and for good reason.
Primarily, automated equipment do not complain about their working hours or conditions. They don’t require healthcare or other benefits. Certainly, they don’t request time off to handle family affairs. Nothing more than physical manifestations of programming, they do their job as they’re told.
And because of that lies ironically one weakness of automation: the lack of human input.
Automation Isn’t Always Desirable or Efficient
When I buy anything from McDonald’s, I always use the automated kiosk (assuming it’s working). Why? Personally, I don’t care for humans. They’re just not my type.
But I honestly can’t remember a single time when I saw someone else use the supposedly convenient machine. Everyone else prefers waiting in line. As my kiosk use increased in frequency, I understood the reason why people eschew it for human interaction. Even with the lousiest employee, you can get your order placed far quicker than I can scrolling through a library of menu items.
In other words, automation at McDonald’s is incredibly inefficient and time consuming. Again, even the dullest employee can practically work faster than their automated counterpart.
I’m not the only one that has made this observation. Interestingly, Starbucks hasn’t enjoyed much success with automation because that’s not what their customers want. Vox contributor Timothy B. Lee writes:
People don’t go to Starbucks simply to get a cup of coffee — after all, there are lots of cheaper and faster ways to get coffee. People go to Starbucks because they enjoy the experience. And that experience has an important performative dimension — customers want to feel like their barista devoted personal attention to preparing their cup.
While automation is a serious challenge that impacts many industries, it’s not a universal threat. Indeed, I personally observed Lee’s premise: automation makes human labor more valuable. Thus, the automated revolution may not be an existential threat but a nuanced dynamic with some surprising winners.