EDITORIAL: Know any robots?

SEATTLE ROBOT SWALLOWS SHOPPERS! To the best of my knowledge that headline doesn’t exist. But it wouldn’t necessarily be fake news meant to deceive or confuse readers. It suggests changes on the horizon.

Amazon, the giant online sales company, has opened an experimental grocery store in Seattle with no checkout aisles. You pick up what you want, your smart phone tells Amazon what you’ve got, charges your account and you’re gone. Not a cashier in sight.

We already have primitive versions of that in some local supermarkets. The machine at my market was so frustrating I felt like smashing a grapefruit into its smug touch screen. Finally, I submitted to the rigid commands of the automated checkout droid. Now I no longer stand in line waiting for strangers to examine the number of prunes or mouse traps I’m buying. It’s just me and the machine… and all the data it collects and shares about me and my buying habits.

I worried that someday I’d hear alarm bells sound, the market door slam shut and a voice on the phone of the shopper next to me instruct her to drop her candy bars in the barrel or the store would cut off her health insurance. But not anymore. Now I imagine a soothing phone voice saying: I see you like that candy bar. Well, you’ll love the soft drink we’re depositing in your bag.

The pace of our transition to digital everything feels like it’s accelerating even here in our scenic digital backwater. E-filing deeds and mortgages? Clerk Holly Tanner’s done that. Broadband access countywide? Working on it. Uber rides? Could be–police say it’s safer. The list goes on.

Last week Diane Valden reported on local towns and the City of Hudson being notified by state that the lengths of their local roads have shrunk. The state has made this determination with software and satellite images that yield more precise measurements of the roads. Length matters because it helps determine the amount for state aid local municipalities receive to repair those roads.

The satellite mapping may be more precise than measurements made by highway department crews, although it would be reassuring to know that the length of state roads is shorter too. But unless there is convincing evidence that a municipality has padded the measurements of its roads, which is pretty farfetched, adjustments in state funding should be phased in over time. The roads still have to be repaired, regardless of what the satellite data tell us.

Will the state’s embrace of digital tools cost local jobs? It might. Highway crews work hard and some positions require a high degree of skill, especially for operators of heavy equipment. You’d think the people who do these jobs have marketable skills. But what if traffic around construction sites were controlled by drones and lights monitored and controlled by through the internet? What happens to flaggers?

The cashiers at supermarkets or other retail business are a clearer case. Many are young, some lack skills, others have scheduling conflicts, like caring for children or an aging parent, and must have part-time work. Plenty of the adults who are defined as “poor” have jobs; it’s just that the jobs they have don’t pay enough for them to cover the rent and feed themselves and their families.

We hear a lot these days from the incoming administration about jobs going overseas and the drag that is on our economy. There’s far less publicity attached to the speed at which robots are displacing the workers in all sorts of industries, not just manufacturing. Automation is at least as big a “job killer” as jobs moving off-shore. And while we can’t and shouldn’t expect to stop this transition to a digital/robotic future, we do need to recognize what’s happening and plan a rational response. Ignoring an ever larger group of displaced workers and hoping they’ll fend for themselves is not a plan.

Right now Columbia County has the lowest unemployment rate in the state. It’s hard to find applicants for certain openings. Job loss to robots can wait, right? Sure, as long as you ignore dwindling school enrollment and expect trends won’t continue that point toward a labor shortage that grows worse as our older-than-average population gets older still.

Robots are here and more are coming. But don’t look for spindly metallic mannequins or nerds that speak in monotones. That Amazon Seattle store? The store itself is the robot. Soon enough there’ll be one in your neighborhood too.

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