New U.S. President Donald Trump is focused on expanding the U.S. economy through tougher trade deals with countries including Mexico and China, and efforts to rebuild the base of manufacturing jobs in the United States.
Barack Obama says the Democratic Party should be thinking about the real threat to jobs: technology and automation.
“Automation is relentless and it’s going to accelerate,” Obama said in his final interview as president, a podcast with four of his former aides, published over the weekend. “You saw just what happened to retail stores, sales this past Christmas. Amazon and online sales is killing traditional retail, and what’s true there is going to be true throughout our economy.”
The impact of automation and AI on jobs was largely ignored by the U.S. presidential candidates during the campaign. Explaining the impact, Rice University’s Moshe Vardi pointed out that manufacturing employment has been falling for more than 30 years, and yet U.S. manufacturing output is near its all-time high.
Amazon has emerged as a leader in automation and robotics at its fulfillment centers but has downplayed the direct impact of automation on its workforce, as the company’s global employment has soared to more than 300,000 people.
On top of that, the company recently announced that it plans to add another 100,000 full-time jobs in the U.S. over the next 18 months, an increase of more than 55 percent in its domestic workforce.
“Our fulfillment centers are a symphony of robotics, software, of people and of high-tech computer science algorithms – machine learning everywhere—and our employees are key to the process,” the company said in a 2015 statement to GeekWire. “There has been no job loss associated with the use of robotics in our buildings and in fact due to increased efficiencies, some of our buildings utilizing robotics have the highest headcounts in our network.”
However, that doesn’t take into account the larger picture for the economy, including the impact on jobs at traditional retailers and their distribution centers as Amazon has gained market share.
More recently, the Seattle tech giant has introduced a new grocery store concept, Amazon Go, that uses technology to replace traditional grocery checkers, hinting at the company’s approach as it rolls out more physical stores across the country.
Here are Obama’s parting comments on technology and automation, as transcribed by Re/code.
We all want free and fair trade, and you can argue about negotiations with China, or taking a tougher stance with Mexico, or what have you, but the fact is — and the data just shows this — the jobs that are going away are primarily going away because of automation. And that’s going to accelerate. Driverless Uber and the equivalent displacement that’s going to take place in office buildings across the country is going to be scary for folks. Which means we’re going to have to start thinking about where the jobs come from, and how much government involvement is there in the marketplace, and do we have a job-sharing economy so that everybody has work, because it turns out that work is not just about finances, but it’s about dignity and feeling like you’ve got a place in the world? How do you pay for that? If more and more people are working in the service sector, how do we make sure that they’re getting paid enough? In addition to making an argument that, “If you want a better deal, then you better start unionizing and organizing, ‘cause otherwise you’re going to get screwed,” in addition to making the argument that if you’re in the service sector right now, you should be fighting for a higher minimum wage ‘cause across the board, everybody in the service sector is going to be better off … In addition to those traditional arguments, we, I think, probably have to be more creative about anticipating about what’s coming down the pike. Automation is relentless and it’s going to accelerate. You saw just what happened to retail stores, sales this past Christmas. Amazon and online sales is killing traditional retail, and what’s true there is going to be true throughout our economy.
Listen to the full “Pod Save America” interview with Obama below, hosted by Jon Favreau, Jon Lovett, Dan Pfeiffer and Tommy Vietor.