Are The Robots Still Coming?

Today's US economy is robust by almost any standard.  Unemployment is very low and help wanted signs are plentiful.  So is concern about robots taking everybody's job overblown?  Well, maybe, so far.

On the other hand, wages are barely rising, which is nice for employers but not so much for workers.  This is surprising in a red hot economy.  So what is going on?

There are a few possibilities.  The great recession of 2007-2010 left a huge pool of discouraged workers who were not even trying to find work and who are just now entering the labor pool.  International competition continues to put downward pressure on jobs.  Also, automation of many traditionally high-pay factory jobs means that increased production doesn't automatically boost average pay.  Jared Bernstein, writing in the NYT, finds another reason: 40 years of Republican and corporatist suppression of organized labor.

Unsurprisingly, traditionally low paying jobs like food service have been slower to automate.  If you regularly visit McDonald's or a supermarket, though, you have probably noticed various robotic elements creeping in.

Perhaps the most sophisticated robotic grocery store is the UK's Ocado.
Less than two feet below the roof beams of a warehouse in Andover, in the southwest of England, hundreds of robots are swarming above a giant block that's as wide as a football field and three stories high. 
It's a hive of groceries--thousands of plastic boxes, many layers deep--stocked with everything from grapes to shampoo to cat food. 
Ocado built and runs this hive, and it could make one for you, too, if you're game. 
With about $1.4 billion in 2016 sales, the British e-commerce firm is the world's largest online-only grocery chain. Founded in 2000, some 12 years before Instacart, it has since innovated its way through brutally complex logistical problems.
It's almost certainly a glimpse of the future, a future which may well not need us:
 Ocado's cofounder and CEO, Tim Steiner, recently told analysts who had toured the Andover warehouse that "every human touch point is designed to one day be replaced by a robotic solution."


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