The UK is currently suffering its first worrying lack of retail staff for years as the “pingdemic” is forcing thousands of shop workers into self-isolation.
Retailers up and down the country are facing empty shelves, store closures and reduced opening hours as they simply do not have the store staff to continue operating.
Its not just store staff who are in dangerously short supply. The ongoing heavy goods vehicle (HGV) driver shortage has meant supermarkets are missing massive deliveries of fresh produce which is being left to rot in containers due to an unprecedented shortage of drivers.
According to Nationwide Produce managing director Tim O’Malley, “perfectly good, graded and packed fresh produce [are] being dumped or left rotting in cold stores.”
The shortage in workers and supplies is likely to lead to a spike in fresh food prices according to O’Malley, who believes dramatic levels of inflation are unavoidable if the crisis continues.
Not only is the crisis threatening individual businesses and vulnerable communities who rely on the essential stock of local stores, but it is hampering the post-pandemic recovery of retail and hospitality at a crucial moment for the UK’s economy.
While the government scrambles to tweak self-isolation rules and find new ways of training driver, some have suggested another solution. The answer is simple and the cogs are already in motion. Robots.
“Will my job be taken by a robot?” is something that has been at the back of retail worker’s minds for years and the acceleration of automation in most industries has brought the idea closer to reality than its ever been before.
Robots aren’t just a figure of imagination in the heads of Hollywood’s most successful sci-fi movie directors, they do actually exist, and they’re very capable.
There are numerous areas on the retail supply chain which are currently being automated, from packing and picking to shipping.
For example, Tesla recently unveiled its fully electric, semi truck with its signature built-in autopilot feature. The semi is able to travel up to 500 miles on one charge, which is around the distance from New York to Ohio.
While there currently needs to be a driver in the cabin at all times, we could see driverless trucks within 50 years, thus eradicating the need for long-range truck drivers. There were approximately 3.5 million in the US alone in 2019 according to Ttnews.
Alongside physical automation, artificial intelligence (AI) is expected to replace one in five UK retail jobs by 2024, according to research from KPMG and Harvey Nash, this means around 150,000 UK retail workers could lose their jobs.
The website willrobotstakemyjob.com allows you to type your job title into the search bar and calculates the likelihood of your job being taken over by a robot in the next couple decades. The retail salesperson role is one the jobs with the highest risk factor.
“With the rise of Amazon, physical shopping across the US is in decline, as is the case virtually everywhere around the world,” Asendia chief information officer Ed Turner told Charged.
“At a general level this is driving a move towards fewer human jobs, and increasing use of AI and automation in the e-commerce supply chain.”
ABI Research predicts that by 2025 more than 150,000 mobile robots will be deployed in bricks-and-mortar retail establishments.
Its already made its way onto the warehouse floors of the world’s largest retailers including Amazon, Alibaba, JD.com and Walmart, which deployed 350 robotic systems inside its stores in 2019.
Turner believes this will go even further by adding: “In the near future retailers and fulfilment partners won’t need anybody in the warehouse, with the US and China ahead of the rest of the world in progressing that inevitable journey.
“I believe in 10 to 15 years, perhaps by 2030, we will start to see fully automated e-commerce warehouses where picking, packing and despatch processes are all carried out by intelligent mobile robots.
“You would just need humans in the control room to oversee the IT. The turning point will be the development of more sophisticated robotic technology capable of picking multiple items and putting them into a single box without human intervention.”
The rate of automation may also speed up as AI gets smarter. Tesla and SpaceX founder and tech entrepreneur Elon Musk told the New York Times he believes that artificial intelligence will be ‘vastly smarter’ than any human by 2025.
EDesk chief technology officer Gareth Cummings believes that the “ongoing refining of AI makes it a continued innovation of interest, with the potential to impact industries in ways we haven’t yet considered.
“Where AI and robotics are concerned, there have been present-day conversations around robots taking people’s jobs, so where will this leave us in 30 or 40 years? These societal questions should be asked now.”
With retail jobs reportedly coming under such threat from automation, why are retailers struggling so much with a lack of retail workers?
“Currently the tech is not fully developed, and anything coming close takes up too much physical space to be cost-effective for industrial scale use,” Turner explained.
One of the biggest reasons we don’t currently have a developed robotic infrastructure is because the big robotics manufacturers are based out in either the US or China, not the UK. Not only this, but the worldwide shortage in semiconductors due to the pandemic has hampered the production of smart tech all around the globe.
“Most of the robotic technology is coming from China, but the US does boast a thriving robotics and AI tech industry which is growing at pace and is likely to thrive if US warehouse and retail job opening are proving difficult to fill,” he continued.
So who are the big players? Amazon are perhaps unsurprisingly leading the pack after acquiring Kiva Systems in 2012. It now owns the production of its mobile drive unit robots, through the Amazon Robotics division.
Technology companies like Locus Robotics Corp, Fetch Robotics and Six River Systems are growing fast in the US, with ambitious plans to bring their systems to the mass market.
Amazon announced last spring that it was introducing several new machines to some of its US warehouses. The new machines scan and box items ready to be shipped and according to Reuters, it meant that it replaced at least 24 jobs at each location.
If the robotics were deployed in all of Amazon’s 55 US-based fulfilment centres then it as many as 1,300 employees could lose their jobs.
However while the pathway seems clear for robots to march in and take large portions of our job markets, there is a growing backlash from many business leaders.
If a company can drastically cut down on its human workforce and replace them with robotics then fewer individuals will receive a share of the revenues, meaning there will likely be even wealthier individuals who own the AI-driven corporations.
But by using artificial intelligence, a company can drastically cut down on relying on the human workforce, and this means that revenues will go to fewer people. Consequently, individuals who have ownership in AI-driven companies will make all the money.
Another concern with robotics is the potential for racial bias. Uber introduced its own “Real Time ID Check” technology with Uber Eats riders in April last year, which also required them to take selfies throughout the day to crosscheck against a photo stored in its database.
However, according to Wired, more than a dozen riders provided evidence that the technology failed to recognise their faces, with many branding it “racist”.
This led to numerous riders being wrongly threatened with termination, having their accounts frozen or being fired permanently from the platform.
In 2018 a similar version of the facial recognition software used by Uber, created by Microsoft, was found to have a 20.8 per cent failure rate for darker skinned female faces, and a six per cent failure rate for darker skinned male faces.
Automation is expanding rapidly both in technological capability and in its usage throughout the supply chain.
However, despite the dramatic statistics predicting its role in the coming decades, automation cannot yet be implemented at the pace or scale needed to make a real difference to retailers, even during a crisis.
Retail’s robot revolution is definitely underway, but it will not be the dramatic invasion of the machines many expect. Instead the automation of the industry will be gradual and quiet, but no less impactful.