Home AI Assistants Threaten Workplaces

By now you’ve probably heard of the Amazon Echo, a smart home device that incorporates AI (artificial intelligence) and can sit on your kitchen counter and answer any question you ask it. Of course, being an Amazon product, “she” (as Amazon refers to it… er, Alexa…) will also be happy to sell you just about anything you need. Since that introduction, they have added a couple of more devices to their lineup.

Their Echo Show adds a video screen and can present you with music lyrics, photos, YouTube videos, make video calls and see who’s at the front door.

Echo Look sits on your closet shelf. She “can help you look your best” taking photos of you and giving you opinions on your look, all while you can “discover new brands,” i.e., sell you stuff. And she has “Skills like Starbucks.” I’m not exactly sure what that means, but I think it means selling you coffee products.

I think we get the basic idea, selling you whatever you may need at any time.

Google has also gotten in the game with their Google Home product. It can play music and videos, and is probably the best at answering general questions, seeing how it’s integrated with Google’s best-in-class search functionality.

A couple of weeks ago Apple got in the game with their HomePod product, due out later this year. It too will play music and videos, and it’s my guess that it will eventually lead in the media category given their iTunes pedigree.

What they all have in common is selling you products, music, movies, and videos. They are making it easier and easier to consume media. Think about it, 10 years ago if you wanted to buy a 36” TV you’d likely ask friends what they recommend, go to a couple of stores, make a buying decision, then borrow a friend’s truck to go get it.  Today you can say, “Hey Alexa, what 60” TV under $600 gets the best reviews?” You get the answer and say “Buy it.” Done. Instead of blowing half your weekend visiting brick and mortar retail stores, you’ve done the entire thing in 5 minutes without having to leave your kitchen.

While this is great for the consumer (I’m a fan of all of these devices), it’s not so good for employees in certain workplaces. For example, retail salespeople and cashiers jobs will be under pressure as AI assistants take over and retail visits dwindle. And guess what the two biggest job categories are in the U.S.? Retail salespersons (#1) and cashiers (#2).

Of course, someone still needs to make the products, ship them to warehouses, load them in trucks and deliver to your house. For now, there will be plenty of jobs in those areas.

AI assistants on the front end are being matched by robotic advances on the back end, so eventually some of those jobs, like truck drivers, will be gone, too. But as I mentioned in a recent blog post, this cycle of creative destruction has been going on for hundreds of years. And with unemployment at a 16 year low of 4.3%, it looks like it will continue for many more.

Frank Kenna III
June 20, 2017

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