Amazon and automation

Apparently, Amazon thinks that a lot of the workforce it is about to displace with robots can be taught to program those robots.

As automation technology has leapt ahead, workers increasingly worry about losing their jobs to robots and algorithms. Economists dismiss those concerns, by and large, arguing that workers can grab higher-skilled jobs with better wages.

Amazon may soon find out who is right.

The e-commerce giant said Thursday that it planned to spend $700 million to retrain about a third of its American workers to do more high-tech tasks, an acknowledgment that advances in technology are remaking jobs in nearly every industry — and that workers will need to adapt or risk being left behind.

There are doubtless some bright college kids schlepping boxes around Amazon warehouses and, yes, some of them are probably studying subjects that are transferable to the way Amazon does business. For most of those warehouse employees, however — the two-thirds who aren’t going to get retraining — displacement by a robot is going to mean a step-down in their lifestyle.

There will always be boutique jobs, and there will always be trades not susceptible of automation — crawling under my house to repair a plumbing leak, for instance — but the combination of automation and AI means that some people are going to be put out of the workforce for keeps. We need to be thinking about what is going to become of those people today.

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