Do robots threaten jobs? Americans and experts disagree

A slight majority of Americans report worry about automation affecting jobs in retail (55%), customer service (54%), delivery (52%), and supply chain/fulfillment (51%).
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Francis Scialabba

· 4 min read

Man or machine? It’s the commonly asked question when discussing the future of labor in the United States and globally.

Most companies, including retailers, use automation in some way to handle repetitive tasks at a faster pace. Experts told Retail Brew that these kinds of investments pay off in the long term from an ROI perspective. But where the rubber meets the road is whether or not automation will remove back-end jobs that are already largely outsourced overseas.

A slight majority of Americans report worrying about automation affecting jobs in retail (55%), customer service (54%), delivery (52%), and supply chain/fulfillment (51%), according to a Harris Poll/Retail Brew survey. Plus, a third of employed Americans (33%) are worried about automation affecting their own jobs.

“Every time we’ve become more efficient, people are afraid that we’re not going to have work done,” Lior Elazary, CEO at inVia Robotics, told Retail Brew. “It’s just historically, that’s never been true. And I think the reason for it is that we just don’t stand still.”

According to a 2019 study from Oxford Economics, more than 20 million manufacturing jobs around the world will be taken over by robots by 2030. The Oxford study says it won’t just affect the US workforce, given that 14 million robots could be put to work in China alone.

But this is where the disconnect lies. According to a 2022 study published in Socious: Sociological Research for a Dynamic World, only 14% of workers say they’ve lost their job to a robot. Also, those who hadn’t experienced job replacement still estimated that 29% of jobs have been supplanted by robots.

Yariv Bash, co-founder and CEO of end-to-end drone delivery company Flytrex, told Retail Brew people shouldn’t be worried about robots taking jobs. His company specifically hires workers to operate drones that deliver goods to consumers.

  • Almost a quarter (24%) of millennials and 26% of Americans in urban areas report sometimes or often using drone delivery services, per Harris Poll.
  • Flytrex partnered with Walmart in 2020 to pilot a drone delivery program in Fayetteville, North Carolina, which was expanded in 2021 after the Federal Aviation Administration granted Flytrex and other drone companies permission to fly over people.

Bash argues that one delivery person on their own can make maybe two deliveries per hour in the suburbs. But take that same person and give them a drone, and they can make “dozens” of deliveries in the same time span, he said.

  • “And because it’s more affordable and faster, [it] generates a lot more demand…So you end up doing a lot more deliveries with a lot less people,” Bash said. “However, you still need those people because you’re doing a lot more deliveries.”

Zoom out: The fear over jobs doesn’t stop at manufacturing or delivery. With innovations like ChatGPT, there’s a rising sentiment that artificial intelligence could replace white-collar jobs. But such concerns are nothing new, nor are they unique to ChatGPT. A different Oxford study from 2013, estimated that 47% of US jobs might be at risk of being taken over by AI.

  • Back in the modern day, fast food jobs are perceived to also be at risk. Look at McDonald’s, which introduced a fully automated location in Texas. Its computers have an 85% success rate for accurately taking orders for Big Macs and fries.

However, like Bash, Elazary, who also runs a robotics company, isn’t afraid of automation taking jobs—at least in its current iteration. He explained that AI technology still hasn’t surpassed humans when it comes to overcoming new challenges. Rather, robots are really good at repetitive tasks, usually found on assembly lines, but don’t yet have the capacity to problem-solve.

  • “If [robots] are faced with a completely new thing that they’ve never seen before, they just fail miserably,” he said. ”What you’re seeing today with robots is human ingenuity. You’re seeing human problem-solving at its best. Robots are lacking that.”—KM
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