As companies, brands and organisations increasingly look to automated methods for efficiency, in part 1 of a 2 part series Mintel’s senior trend consultant Richard Cope explores this trend, asking if robots and algorithms threaten livelihoods… or offer liberty?

Dystopia: Rise of the Machines

The negative view is that robots and software systems are coming to take our jobs, leave us indolent and isolated, destroy the arts and even threaten our desire to breed. If that sounds extreme, then it’s worth noting that no less a figure than Stephen Hawking has warned that “the development of full artificial intelligence could spell the end of the human race”. He’s one of several voices warning of a disenfranchised future, where no less than 702 job categories are under threat – amounting to 47% of the current US labour market – according to researchers at Oxford University. The Most Rev Justin Welby, Archbishop of Canterbury warns of “growing inequalities” and “stagnation of income”, whilst author Andrew Keen ponders “10% of humans left holding hands of robots, creating a huge underclass and nothing underneath”.

At the heart of this argument is the ‘Moravec Paradox’, named after Hans Moravec of the Robotics Institute of Carnegie Mellon University, who noted that whilst computers can’t cut hair, they can very easily be taught to grade essays. We are seeing a huge upsurge in automation, with the International Federation of Robotics logging a 12% increase in industrial robot purchases in 2013 and predicting 25,000 agricultural robots will be sold in 2015. It’s in consumerism’s more humdrum aspects where automation is being keenly felt, with self-checkout technologies contributing to a 1.1 million decline in US retail jobs between 2008 and 2011 and drones waiting in the wings to deliver our goods more swiftly and remove companies like UPS of their reason to be.

Fewer jobs, Fairer Jobs

Relatively new digital powerhouses like Amazon are famed for their hyper-efficient employment models – achieving sales of $10 million per 14 workers, compared with a bricks and mortar average of 47, according to the US Institute of Local Self-Reliance. Employment efficiencies at Amazon will tighten further with a target of 10,000 robots in its fulfilment centres (25 teams are competing in a ‘Picking Challenge’ to deliver the perfect fulfilment robot) and this raises an interesting issue around the moral highground in the human-automation debate. Amazon has been criticized for its labour policies in the past and by embracing robotics, it can escape from the kind of criticism levied at brands who outsource manufacturing to the likes of Foxconn. Advocates of automation make the case that it can bring dignity to labour, with Beijing-based IT analyst David Wolf having remarked that it “is the beginning of the end of the factory girl, and that’s a good thing”. That’s easy to say if you buy in to the argument that automation will liberate us, our time and our attention for better things – education and artistic attainment for example.
Digital Athens: No drudgery; No sex

The problem here is that opponents – quite credibly contend that our entire consumerist capitalist system is based on work, wages and buying goods. In that regard it’s possible to argue that retailers are slowly cutting their own throats in the drive towards convenience. The ‘Digital Athens’ scenario of ‘arts for all’ has legs in the sense that digital economies are contributing towards a shift away from professionals to amateurs: the US Bureau of Labor Statistics has documented a 45% decline in professional musicians between 2000 and 2012. One likely scenario here is that brands will increasingly act as patrons to the arts to sponsor and secure a continuation of high standards. Freed from the drudgery of work and menial tasks we might feasibly become lazier, larger and weaker in a real life Wall-E world.

Our emerging willingness to engage with Japanese ‘Geminoid’ storefront ‘living mannequins’, virtual ‘Cloud Girlfriends’ and Alexa (the conversational Amazon Echo home assistant) suggests that Spike Jonze’s 2014 movie Her – in which Joaquin Phoenix falls in love with his operating system ‘Samantha’, voiced by Scarlett Johansson – might not be either as fanciful or futuristic as first thought. Certainly some analysts of Japan’s troubling sekkusu shinai shokogun celibacy syndrome amongst young people have tried to explain in terms of the diminishing allure of flesh and blood in the face of competition from digital and virtual attractions.

With over a decade of experience in market research, Richard works as a Trends Analyst, helping clients understand how global consumer trends impact their business. As a globally recognised leading trends commentator, he is regularly called on by media worldwide to provide insight and analysis into consumer trends, with recent highlights including the Guardian and BBC Radio 2.

If you would like to know what these trends – and others – mean for your business please contact Richard to discuss our trend presentation, project and facilitation services. E-mail: rcope@mintel.com; Twitter: @Richard_Mintel

 

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