What do Low-Wage Strikes Imply for Robotic Development?


Another huge wave of disgruntled fast-food workers went out on the streets of 190 cities in the U.S. last week. The impact of such continuous efforts of the low-paid employees might be enormous, but unfortunately in a more dystopian way than many of us can currently imagine.

Happenings similar to the current strike have appeared very frequently during the last 24 months; the movement is worldwide and shows no sign of stopping. The fast-food workers’ demand is a largely increased minimum wage as well as union rights. Also, Industry Week reports that they were currently joined by other low-paid employees from e.g. convenience stores, supermarkets and airports as well as home-care personnel.

The current federal minimum wage is $7.25 per hour whereas the movement is pushing for an hourly wage of $15. Current wages are simply not enough for keeping the employees out of poverty. The issue has escalated up to the very top, where President Barack Obama has pushed for an increase in salary up to $10.10 but has faced rough republican antagonism. However, some senators and states have joined the battle and cities such as Seattle and San Francisco has already adopted minimum wage standards of the requested $15.

This development might seem all good, almost as a victory of democracy and workers’ rights over the rotten capitalistic infrastructure. However, if we were to put on our futurist glasses and scrutinize the matter, the colors of this pretty painting might fade a bit. We live in an era which is about to be subjected to unprecedented impact of machines. Many are the people who wave off such statements as Luddite nonsense, but there is a dilemma these people do not recognize.

Many people think that the widespread technological debate in the last year regards whether automation and robotic solutions will “take our jobs” or not. However, the expert debate is more tackling the question posed as whether we will be able to create new jobs when automation destroys old ones, not if the destruction of current jobs will happen. Put more clearly, there is a large consensus that huge amounts of jobs will evidentially cease to exist and the question is if we will find other fields for humans to work in. Thus, robots and the like will most definitely “take our jobs” but in what areas are humans still superior?

Currently, there are probably not many jobs in danger in the fast-food industry just because workers express their feelings in line with their stipulated rights. However, a double minimum wage will slash the profits of the multinational chains. In a capitalist regime, companies should strive for maximizing shareholder value and this is unfortunately not totally compatible with a 100 % salary raise. Of course, employees might be a little happier which results in better served customers but these improvements will not add up to meet the profit loss. It is sad, it sounds evil, but it is nonetheless the truth. Thus, drastically falling prices of robotic equipment coupled with increased wages will become major incentives for companies to turn to automated solutions.

The Economist article and thought experiment “The Human-Driven Driverless Car” paints a scenario where driverless cars and other areas frequently subjected to discussion in debates regarding technological unemployment become obsolete because of the lowered wages for workers. In other words, there are two scenarios. The first is increased automation and job loss and the second one is that the possibility for automation makes people willing to take on ridiculously low wages which in turn make the machines seem as a bad investment. People will go to great extents in order to afford food and shelter. Both scenarios are clearly very dystopian, but philosophically speaking it seems as if these will be what we have to choose from.

Technological unemployment in the fast-food industry became very realistic when a company called Momentum Machines with their autonomous burger making robot made big headlines last year. Multinationals in the industry will increasingly look to automated solutions if these are capable of bringing consistent quality of meals to customers, at a fraction of the cost. Increased minimum wages will further spur innovation and investments in the area; the market potential is enormous if solutions are executed in a satisfactory manner. Of course, this regards the supply side but we can expect customer-driven innovation as well, even if there is still reason to discuss how people actually want to be served.

In the intriguing article “The Day You’ll Prefer Robots to Humans” from Singularity Hub a consumers’ perspective is taken. The author Peter Diamandis lays out a convincing case for a future scenario where we experience daily interactions with robots as more convenient and frictionless than interactions with humans. The main segment of such interactions today evidentially takes place in settings where you encounter people in service professions with comparably low wages. How many generic people would rather want fast, efficient, cut-to-chase services stripped of fake-friendly chitchat or indifference? Probably many of us would prefer the first option. The common people mostly want efficient and professional experiences and get on with their lives, instead of the indulging experiences of fantasy-like consuming, which many companies seem to believe. The employee should help the consumer to achieve the intended purpose he or she carries with them, and in many situations the customer can handle their own needs and wants. They just want help to find something they have in mind or make the intended purchase.

All the above mentioned factors constitute a complex canvass but these things seriously need to be discussed before we are all facing a much more urgent situation. Unfortunately it seems as if raised minimum wages in technologically replaceable jobs will only create a short-term impact for the employees and a further incentive for robotic development.



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