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Supermarkets are among the businesses forging ahead with new technology, and observers warn that cutting jobs is a prime motive

If you are ever worried about slipping over at the Woolworths store in Gregory Hills, south-west of Sydney, Greggles has got your back. Greggles is a test safety robot that patrols the store and scans floors for slip hazards.

It’s just a trial, and a simple task for a robot to complete, but the rapid pace of technological advancement in AI, robotics and automation is both a benefit – and a threat – to employment.

Want to skip the checkout? In New Zealand, grocery chain Foodstuffs is testing the use of a smart trolley or smart basket, which recognises products as they are placed inside, removing the need for customers to go through the checkout.

And in the UK, Ocado, which delivers groceries for the supermarket chains Waitrose and Morrison, has tested a C-3PO-style maintenance assistant to work in its warehouses, another in the online grocery specialist’s moves to reduce reliance on human workers.

The pace of technological change, particularly the speed at which companies are moving to automate, introduce artificial intelligence to find efficiencies and even bring in robots like Greggles has Australian experts calling for a public debate and proper policy framework around how we cope with the massive changes to society it will bring. Chief among the concerns is the impact on jobs.

According to Toby Walsh, scientia professor of artificial intelligence at the University of New South Wales, supermarkets’ adoption of AI, robotics and automation is partly dictated by the cut-throat competition between the chains – and the news is not good for workers.

“Saving manpower will help them stay competitive and increase profits,” he tells Guardian Australia. “They’ll make promises that this will free up time for their staff to interact with customers, but in a cut-throat business like supermarkets, where the consumer is always looking for lower prices, they’ll be tempted to reduce head counts and improve their margins.”

This week a report by the Australian Council of Learned Academies, of which Walsh is co-chair, quoted 2016 Google Australia data suggesting 3.5 million Australian workers were at high risk of being displaced by automation over the next decade.

Toby Walsh
Toby Walsh says supermarkets will always be ‘tempted to reduce head counts and improve their margins’. Photograph: Julian Smith/AAP

The report said there needed to be greater retraining and income support for workers as AI encroaches on the workplace.

The Australian Human Rights Commission is currently undertaking a project looking at the impact technology including AI, automation and robotics is having on human rights.

Human rights commissioner Ed Santow told a digital rights conference in Melbourne last month that Australia needed to be “clear-minded” about the harms posed by AI and address them.

“It is easy to be interested and excited by new technology but if we humans are the ones too often being asked to adapt to deal with some of those negative consequences of technology, has something gone deeply wrong?” he said. “That’s the fundamental question we need to grapple with in a really vigorous way.”

Last month, supermarket giant Coles announced it was working with Microsoft to use the data from its 21 million weekly transactions to “optimise” and simplify its business. The aim is to save $1bn by 2023.

The announcement was one of several made by Coles indicating an expanded use of artificial intelligence and automation. In January, the company signed what it described as a “game-changing” $950m deal with German automation specialist Witron to build fully automated distribution centres in Sydney and Brisbane and a $150m partnership with British online food retailer Ocado to build two highly automated fulfilment centres in Melbourne and Sydney.

Coles currently collects data on what its customers buy and is planning to use AI to target customers individually. Among its plans are to install electronic shelf-edge labels so workers do not have to manually price down specials on thousands of items in each of its 800 stores each week and sensors to alert stores to when products need to be restocked.

Coles’s chief operations officer, Matt Swindells, said in a statement at the time of the announcement that AI would be used to determine how energy was being used in the stores.

“How are we using energy in our refrigeration? How are we using energy in some of our in-store ovens for chickens? What’s the right time, the wrong time, the optimal time?” he said.

“Previously operators would have had a gut feeling and what they know from experience. Now you can put data scientists and advanced analytics to that and really optimise a model. At our scale those small improvements in operation can have a material, commercial impact.”

For all these efficiencies, which Coles calls “stripping waste from the business”, it is unclear what it means for jobs.

Coles did not directly respond to questions on how its $1bn investment in technology would affect jobs or the number of jobs that could be expected to go. The company has already announced as part of its transformation program that 450 head office jobs will be going.

In a statement, a spokesperson said that the changes would “boost productivity and allow our team to focus on the things that matter most to customers”.

“Customers won’t necessarily see these in development in our stores as many of the technology innovations will improve our supply chain and back of house operations.”

Unions are understandably suspicious of AI’s impact on jobs. In his first speech to parliament this week, new Labor senator and former Transport Workers Union secretary Tony Sheldon sounded the alarm on technology-driven disruption in the Australian economy.

“The basic rights of working people are under threat from the gig economy, tech platforms, artificial intelligence and worker surveillance systems,” he said. “Australia has no coordinated approach to managing the future of work in Australia. I regard this fact alone as a very bright red-light risk for Australia.

“Ultimately, how can there be prosperity if we enter a world of permanently high unemployment and permanently higher underemployment?”

On the other side of politics, former deputy Liberal leader Julie Bishop this week announced she had accepted a job with Afiniti, a US technology company established by Zia Chishti, which uses AI algorithms to link customers with call centre operators.

At a speech at the National Press Club this week, Telstra chief executive Andy Penn said Australia was underestimating how quickly automation and robotic technology would transform the workplace.

Tony Sheldon
Labor senator Tony Sheldon said the basic rights of workers were under threat from artificial intelligence and worker surveillance systems. Photograph: Mick Tsikas/AAP

“It is increasingly difficult to describe the sheer scale and implications of the changes digital technologies are driving in Australia and across the globe,” he said. “We are rapidly approaching a tidal wave of technology innovation where the rate of change will never be as slow again as it is today.”

Penn said the rise of artificial intelligence was driving job growth in certain areas and Telstra was recruiting 1,500 people in software engineering, data science, data analytics and cyber security. The company has, however, announced it is cutting 18,000 direct workforce and contractor roles by 2022.

The ACOLA report released this week urged Australia to develop a national strategy for AI, a community awareness campaign, safe and accessible digital infrastructure, a responsive regulatory system, and a diverse and highly skilled workforce.

“What kind of society do we want to be?” said Australia’s chief scientist, Alan Finkel, who commissioned the report. “That is the crucial question for all Australians, and for governments as our elected representatives.”

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