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Are you worried about robots taking over your job?

PUBLISHED: 11:13 15 August 2019

Many retail jobs are at risk of automation

Many retail jobs are at risk of automation

Getty Images/iStockphoto

Automation is taking over our lives and stealing jobs from everyone from shop workers to call centre operatives - but is this really progress?

Last week, Tesco announced that it would be slashing 4,500 jobs across its stores.

For anyone who has visited one of their shops lately, this news might not come as surprise.

Checkout counters lay eerily quiet as you make your way over to pay. Pushing your trolley past the empty rows, you might find a solitary cashier manning one of the stations. Beyond them, a familiar, disembodied voice rings out: "Unexpected item in the bagging area."

Visit any major supermarket and the situation is largely the same. Checkout counters are practically deserted - particularly in the smaller, town centre stores - while the automated self-checkout stations are a hive of activity. Is it any wonder, then, that supermarkets have decided that thousands of their workers are entirely expendable?

In fact, why not do away with cashiers and shop assistants altogether, and let self-checkout machines take their place? If the recent spate of job cuts are anything to go by, this is exactly where we are headed.

Over 25% of supermarket checkout jobs disappeared between 2011 and 2017, and the number of people working in retail is down by 72,000 from just a year ago.

And supermarkets aren't the only place where self-service machines are taking over. At McDonald's, luminous LED screens have replaced the familiar, uniformed workers, forcing disgruntled customers to navigate the chaos of the electronic ordering system and the frenzied queue.

By 2020, self-service kiosks will be in operation in every single US McDonald's restaurant - with machines conveniently replacing human workers just as the federal minimum wage is set to almost double to $15 an hour.

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At railway stations, cinemas and airports, we are encouraged to print off our tickets at self-service screens.

As these machines become an increasingly familiar sight in our public spaces, real-life workers are dwindling in number, leaving us fruitlessly searching for some human assistance when our e-ordering experience isn't quite going to plan.

And yet, for all of the headaches and stresses that these machines cause us, we all just accept that they are a normal part of modern life. In fact, many of us might actually prefer using a self-checkout to having to make polite conversation with the person on the other side of the till.

According to a survey carried out by Whistl, 57% of UK consumers prefer to use self-checkouts, opting to avoid human interaction when shopping.

When YouGov asked shoppers what they liked about self-service machines, respondents praised the fact that that they eliminated the need for civil chit-chat.

"It's useful when one doesn't feel inclined to interact with others," said one anonymous participant. "(I) do not have to listen to the idle chat of the checkout person" chimed in another. One participant took it further still, rejoicing that they no longer need to endure "some spotty teen chucking a large bag of spuds on top of my eggs and bread".

We Brits have something of a reputation for being somewhat reserved and antisocial, and our widespread acceptance of these machines certainly supports this stereotype. And as pubs and restaurants continue to close their doors across the land, we seem to be turning increasingly inward.

We know that self-service machines are leading to sweeping job cuts in the retail sector, but we keep on using them anyway.

We know that online shopping is the reason why our town centres are full of empty, boarded-up shops, and yet we continue to happily spend our money on Amazon. Little by little, physical experiences are giving way to the digital.

The rise of robot workers is seemingly inevitable, and we have no-one to blame but ourselves.

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