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December 9, 2016

Robot apocalypse


December 9, 2016

This week Amazon  announced that it’s planning to open a grocery store that has no cashiers or checkout lines. The corporation said that customers would be able to download an app, link their phones to electronic shopping carts that track the items they take from the shelves, then simply walk out with their items.

It was also reported this week that President-elect Donald Trump is considering Andrew Puzder, CEO of the parent company to fast-food chains Carl’s Jr. and Hardee’s, for Secretary of Labor. Puzder, who is already an influential Trump advisor, once boasted about the advantages of replacing human employees with machines.

The technology revolution isn’t here yet. Puzder’s automation project is a case in point. A joint venture between Microsoft and Hardee’s, it’s more sizzle than steak (perhaps appropriately, given his line of business). The kiosks shown in the rollout video are already in use at restaurants like Panera. Chains like Chili’s have experimented with the use of tablets.

The Hardee’s kiosks don’t replace humans with robots as much as they allow people to communicate with human workers in a different way. They are undoubtedly useful in eliminating checkout lines but, as a Reuters  report points out, they are – at least at this point – less effective at eliminating workers.

The hype is typical for today’s technology. Demonstration projects like Amazon’s, or Hardee’s, or Google’s ‘driverless car’, are at least as much about promoting a technophilic ideology or a political agenda as they are about the device itself.

According to the data, the robot revolution isn’t here yet. But the day is coming. A well-publicized 2013 study suggested that 47 percent of American jobs will be lost to automation at some point in the near future. Robert McChesney and John Nichols review its implication for progressive activism in their book, People Get Ready: The Fight Against a Jobless Economy and a Citizenless Democracy.

To be fair, Puzder has fought against workers’ interests in more traditional ways too. He wants to cut assistance programs, opposes minimum wage increases, and has been a leading spokesperson for the corporate use of franchises to evade benefit obligations. Workers at his own restaurants areamong  “the overwhelming majority of fast-food employees (who) make less than $9 per hour and face significant ‘barriers to upward mobility’ in the profession.”

Puzder’s corporation has also been cited for numerous violations of the workplace laws he may soon be responsible for enforcing.

Many low-income employees are forced to take government assistance to survive, which means that Puzder’s wealth is partially built on government handouts. And that’s not considering the public health costs of Hardee’s/Carl’s Jr. recent rollout: “a $4 meal that includes a double cheeseburger, spicy chicken sandwich, fries and a drink.”

Puzder is the perfect example of the modern CEO as a hands-off manipulator of money rather than a hands-on builder of businesses. Although he runs a restaurant chain with more than 20,000 employees, Puzder has never flipped burgers, worked a cash register, or opened a restaurant. An attorney by background, Puzder’s restaurant career began when he helped Carl Karcher (the “Carl” in Carl’s Jr.”) salvage his struggling chain through a major financial transaction with Fidelity National Capital. He later orchestrated a series of additional deals to expand the corporation.

Corporate owners  stopped sharing productivity gains   with their workers four decades ago. That has led to record levels of inequality, a deepening corruption of our democracy by big-money donors and, in its latest and darkest flowering, the kleptocratic presidential administration of Donald J. Trump.

Donald Trump and his friends are pursuing the ancient vision, as old as the pyramids, of a society where the rich call the shots so they can keep getting richer. That’s the real apocalypse, the one people have been resisting since history began. Robots are just its latest symptom.

This article has been excerpted from: ‘Will Trump Bring the Robot Apocalypse?’




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