In A Post-Covid-19 World A.I. Will Be The New Grocery Clerk

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robot clerk

Picture courtesy of Pixabay.com

Reflecting on the pre-Covid-19 era I imagine how I would of felt if I saw people walking around with masks on, signs that instruct people to keep six feet apart and plastic shields separating cashiers and deli clerks from customers.  I found myself not only thinking about how things were before but how things are going to be in the future.  Five months from now, a year, two years, how much will things have altered by then.  Will I be sitting in my room as I am now reflecting on how the world was at this moment?  How much worse things are at that time than they are now? 

Then theirs of course, the massive protests that are occurring worldwide over the death of George Floyd and police brutality towards people of color.  Downtown areas have been devasted by riots, businesses have been sacked and vandalized.  In Seattle, protestors pushed the police out of their precinct and created an anarchistic state called CHOP which was eventually broken up by Seattle PD.  Statues of America’s most notable figures have been taken down, and there are now calls to defund the police throughout many of Americas cities.

And during all this chaos lies the incoming takeover of A.I.  Globally, artificial Intelligence is expected to replace around 20 million manufacturing jobs or 8.5% of the global manufacturing workers within the next decade.  This is due to the combination of superior robotic sufficiency, the low costs of automation and the rising demand for manufacturing goods.

The controversy over A.I. is nothing new.  It is something that’s been being rolled out and debated over for years.  But thanks to Covid-19 the tech giants have gotten very little push back because either people are in such a hysterical state that they’re willing to sacrifice their jobs, privacy and humanity in order to stay “safe” or they’ve forgotten about A.I. altogether.

An article from the Harvard Business Review came out last month called The 10 Commitments Companies Must Make to Advance Racial Justice.   Some of the policies recommended include a) Commit to anti-racism personnel policies and racial-equity training b) Commit to full participation in democracy c) Commit to paying a livable wage.  These are just some of the recommendations which in the long run will do nothing to protect workers of color or any worker in general.  The only one on the list that is actually productive is “commit to giving employees a voice” which is more specifically described as to “ensure representation of hourly employees, women, and people of color in all employment policy decisions.” 

At least, in some sense workers will be able to partake in the company’s decisions.  However, it also depends on who is representing the workers.  Will it be hourly wage earners or someone from corporate? 

Further, the article praises Wal-Mart for raising its hourly pay to $12 an hour.  The pay raise is without a doubt a great thing however, the retail Goliath is one of the main corporations that is pushing to replace its employees with automation.  Many people cannot make a living working there.  They must find a second job.  It is unclear how often they give raises but judging by the amount of its employees that work multiple jobs it may be safe to say not often.

Overall, the article talks nothing of how companies are at full throttle partnering with tech start-ups and building fulfillment centers that will require few human workers and more robots to stock and unload product.  The improvements stated in the article if enforced by companies will be short lived.  Once A.I. is rolled out countless jobs will be lost, and the main issue will no longer be workers’ rights but where to find work at all.  The article also states how corporations that are sending out tweets showing support for racial equality is a good start.  Has this person hit their head?  The writer cannot honestly believe that those tweets are to be anything more than a PR stunt.  Corporations do not care about racial equality or workers’ rights or anything else of that nature.  They care about profits and the most profitable thing for them to do is to get rid of their employees which cost them money and inconvenience and replace them with machines that are far less costly, more cooperative and allegedly more sufficient. 

This co-signing of the public has allowed many in the tech industry to speak more boldly.  The CEO of Steer Tech, a company that sells self-parking technology, based in Maryland, Anuja Sonalker stated, “There has been a distinct warming up to human-less, contactless technology.”  “Humans are biohazards, machines are not,” referring to the fact that we carry disease and germs where A.I. does not.  Obviously, this is a very disturbing and sick thing to say about people.  It is also idiotic.  Robots are objects that get dirty and need to be cleaned.  Who knows what kind of bugs crawl on them as they shutdown at night after a long day of touching other things?  But this is the kind of rhetoric that comes out the mouths of those people that supposedly know what is good for humanity.

The pandemic has provided the perfect cover for the elites to create their techtopia.  Eventually, most jobs will be replaced by some type of system.  Whether that be robotics or computers.  But the blue collared jobs will be the first ones to go.  They are on the frontlines of the tech wars.  Particularly, the supermarket business is advancing rapidly in artificial intelligence.

The Ahold Delhaize Behemoth

Amazon’s Whole Foods is in a race with the Netherlands-based supermarket giant Ahold Delhaize to create the most high-tech grocery stores.  Ahold Delhaize owns grocery chains throughout Europe and holds the East Coast supermarket business in a vice grip.  They own the Hannaford chain in Maine, Giant in eastern Pennsylvania, Food Lion in western Pennsylvania and Stop & Shop of New England and New York metro.  They also own Peapod, the largest online retailer in the country.

Out of all the supermarket kings in the U.S. Ahold Delhaize is pushing the hardest for the use of A.I.  In their 2018 annual report Ahold Delhaize states, “Our brands may not be able to negotiate acceptable terms for extensions and replacements of contracts as a result of unfavorable demands and expectations from unions”

Recently, Ahold Delhaize USA partnered with the cold-food storage provider, Americold, to construct two automated or temperature-controlled warehouses which are supposed to be in operation by 2022, one in Pennsylvania and one in Connecticut.  Dematic, an Atlanta-based automation specialist, which provides technology like goods-in-receiving, automatic pallet building, tray handling, sortation, etc., is also partnered with Americold. 

“To help us offer world-class service to our customers, we were seeking an automation partner to facilitate the future hyperconnected, enabled supply chain in retail fulfillment,” said David Stuver, executive vice president of supply chain solutions for Atlanta-based Americold. “With large-scale global capabilities and innovative automation solutions, Dematic is an ideal partner to help us create state-of-the-art facilities that will help Americold transform the supply chain.”

With “more efficient packing” thanks to Dematic’s technology, fewer trucks will be needed to make deliveries as well as fewer people to stock and organize the shelves in warehouses.  Because of this there will be less job opportunities available in these positions.  This is only the beginning.  It is not just about the depletion of workers at Ahold Delhaize’s warehouses it is about getting rid of supermarkets entirely. 

Ahold Delhaize has partnered with Takeoff, a startup company that builds small warehouses that requires robots to gather groceries for people’s orders.  This will help to accelerate order picking and cut back on delivery times.  Corporations like Ahold Delhaize will save a lot money not only by cutting back on workers but also because these small warehouses only cost $3 million to build, much less than building an average supermarket.  Ahold Delhaize’s new online supermarket trend has already been underway thanks to one of its subsidiaries, Stop & Shop, who is partnered with the tech start-up Instacart to offer curbside pick-up or one to two-hour delivery service.  It may not seem like it now with the amount of people that continue to shop in the traditional sense especially with the crowds that was witnessed during the early days of the pandemic, but ecommerce sales are expected to double what they are now(1.6%) by 2023 according to the industry research group IGD.

Ahold Delhaize has already been installing some type of robotics in their stores, in fact, they have a whole unit dedicated to it: AI for Retail or AIRLab.  This department has started a contest coined the Cleaning Bot Challenge which has different tech start-ups compete for their floor cleaning technology to be picked for Ahold Delhaize’s stores.  Also, Stop & Shop, a subsidiary of Ahold Delhaize, has installed a Breabot in one of its stores, which bakes bread.  Stop & Shop has stated that it intends to expand Braedbots to more of its locations.  Stop & Shop has also announced that it will deploy Robomarts in the Boston area which are basically self-driving vending machines that roam around the streets.  Customers can order things through an app and get it delivered to their house.  At the same time people that come across it in the street can purchase products that it has on it just like a vending machine.

Perhaps, Stop & Shop’s most notable move is the installation of Marty the robot in all their stores.  Marty, which cost $35,000 apiece and was manufactured by Badger Technologies, an arm of Jabil, a tech company that creates smart technology, is meant to detect spills and scan shelves for inventory.  However, the Mr. Thirty-Five Large has so far turned out to be a bust.  Marty does not scan shelves, nor does he detect spills.  When he stops in front of something it is usually a speck of dust or something insignificant which he then makes the announcement that there is spill which more often than not is in a different isle than where he is.  Employees must then stop what they’re doing and waste time walking over to press a button on it to shut it up and get it moving again.  On top of that many customers dislike it because it creeps them out and gets in their way.  Some say they feel like it is following them around the stores or spying on them because it has cameras on it which are supposedly meant to spot spills. 

Out of all Ahold Delhaize’s companies Stop & Shop is thriving the most to implement A.I.  Thanks to corporates bright idea to cut hours to save money many of their employees are struggling to work multiple positions.  And corporate will just keep making more and more cutbacks consequently overwhelming their workers even more until eventually the idea of having workers will only be able to be found in the company’s archives.

The Midwest Cowboys and Friends

Ahold Delhaize is not the only grocery mecca that is advancing fast, Mid-West grocery giant Kroger is also getting in on the action.  Kroger has teamed up with British company Ocado to install technology to fulfill customers’ orders for both pick-up and delivery in its new fulfillment center known as the “shed” which is supposed to open by 2021.  Much like Ahold Delhaize’s small warehouses Kroger’s fulfillment center will be used to house its products and use robotics to stock and obtain groceries for customers’ orders.  Kroger has been expanding its online business which has been growing at a steady pace of 50% a year.  Kroger had already bought Vitcost.com, an online vitamin and supplementary company, a few years ago. 

Walmart too, has been turning up the heat with in the A.I. wars.  Its currently attempting to replace its cashiers with kiosk machines like Whole Foods.  They said it is because concerns due to Covid-19 which is odd because Walmart has had this in the works for a couple of years at least now.  I do not seem to remember they are being a pandemic a few years back.  Walmart, who is so stingy that a few years ago it was caught in a legal case for encouraging its employees at one of their stores to only use two pieces of paper towel every time they washed their hands, is just like all the other multi-billion dollar corporations.  They see A.I. to cut costs and make things more convenient. 

It’s also worth mentioning, Amazon, Whole Foods parent company, has even implemented Go stores where customers don’t even need kiosk machines.  Customers can walk in and out of the store with products and sensors will detect what customers took and take the money out of their Amazon account. 

Where is the Outcry?

So why hasn’t anything been done to halt the tech industries encroachment on the worker?  Where are the Democrats that are supposed to be for the working man?  Or Donald Trump and the Republicans that are always blabbing about bringing jobs back?  Where are the progressives that fight for the working class against the powers that be? 

As far as the politicians go on both sides of the political spectrum, they all for it.  Government is merely a tool for corporations to use to get what they want.  Many tech companies like Google and Amazon, have contracts with the Pentagon and other government factions.  None of them really care about the average American and whether they will lose their lively hood.  It affects them zero, in fact, it benefits them if the tech companies have their way. 

As for those left-wing professors, they may find they have more in common with their right-wing opposites than they want to believe.  Much like the right, the left cheer leads for A.I. naively thinking that it will bring in their communistic utopia where the machines will do all the work and everyone else can live off the government’s universal welfare system.  Unbelievable.  Can anything sound more asinine.  These are supposed to be scholars.  They mean to say that that same capitalist system that has caused massive inequality has all the sudden changed their ways and created A.I. for the good of humanity?  At last, the revolution has come!

This is exactly why things never get better but continue to get worse.  There is no representation for the working class.  The individuals that claim to do that are corrupt politicians, compromised unions, and academics that; for the most part, never worked a blue-collar job in their life.  The academics are supposed to be the ones that have their fingers on the pulse of labor.  But except for personal experience dealing with their own union, all they know is what they see in their institutions that they teach and news that they read.  They have no idea what people that push a mop or build a high-rise or stock a shelf go through in their workplace.  They are out of touch with the worker and with reality.  How many of them try to get involved with other blue collared industries and their unions?  Very few it seems like.  Their more focused on important things like gushing over how their favorite celebrity just insulted Donald Trump.  Progressivism is a shell of its former self.  Instead of organizing and fighting to protect workers they put their focus on identity politics and wokeness.  Well, if the supermarket kings and the tech giants have their way, we’ll all be arguing over gender pronouns on the unemployment line.

Bibliography:

Anneken Tappe, “Robots could take 20 million manufacturing jobs by 2030,” CNN Business, June 25, 2019.

Mark R. Kramer, “The 10 Commitments Companies Must Make to Advance Racial Justice,” Harvard Business Review, June 4, 2020, https://hbr.org/2020/06/the-10-commitments-companies-must-make-to-advance-racial-justice.

Naomi Klein, “Screen New Deal,” The Intercept, May 8, 2020, https://theintercept.com/2020/05/08/andrew-cuomo-eric-schmidt-coronavirus-tech-shock-doctrine/.

Russel Redman, “Upcoming Ahold Delhaize U.S. cold facilities to be automated by Dematic,” Supermarket News, June 5, 2020, https://www.supermarketnews.com/retail-financial/upcoming-ahold-delhaize-us-cold-facilities-be-automated-dematic.

Emma Thomasson and Melissa Fares, “Ahold ups stakes in U.S. grocery war with mini-‘robot supermarkets,’” Reuters, November 7, 2018, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-retail-ecommerce-warehouse-idUSKCN1NC0FI.

Chris Albrecht, “Ahold Delhaize Launches Cleaning Bot Challenge to Find a Robot Floor Scrubber,” The Spoon, May 19, 2020, https://thespoon.tech/ahold-delhaize-launches-cleaning-bot-challenge-to-find-a-robot-floor-scrubber/.

Chris Albrecht, “Stop & Shop Adds BreadBot to its Store Floor for In-Store Bread Production,” The Spoon, September 19, 2019, https://thespoon.tech/stop-shop-adds-breadbot-to-its-store-floor-for-in-store-bread-production/.

Jessica McKenzie, “Stop & Shop now has big, goofy-looking robots patrolling its aisles.  What, exactly, is the goal?” The Counter, June 10, 2019, https://thecounter.org/supermarket-robot-automation-ai-organized-labor-stop-and-shop/.

Steve Watkins, “Kroger, Ocado break ground on $55M Monroe ‘historic’ automated warehouse,” Cincinnati Business Courier, June 12, 2019, https://www.bizjournals.com/cincinnati/news/2019/06/12/kroger-ocado-break-ground-on-55m-monroe.html.

Steve Watkins, “Kroger hires ex-P&Ger for new senior executive post,” Cincinnati Business Courier, October 15, 2014,  https://www.bizjournals.com/cincinnati/news/2014/10/15/kroger-hires-ex-p-ger-for-newsenior-executive-post.html.

Yoni Heisler, “Walmart may replace cashiers with self-checkout kiosks,” BGR, June 17, 2020, https://bgr.com/2020/06/17/walmart-self-checkout-no-cashiers-coronavirus/.

4 COMMENTS

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