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Artificial intelligence (AI) is everywhere. Usually in these abstracts, we focus on the benefits of these advanced technologies for retailing and consumers. Sophisticated AI functions make it possible for retailers to perform inventory analyses more rapidly and accurately, as well as provide accurate and personalized customer service more efficiently. But the expansion of AI throughout retail settings also threatens another critical group: the employees who currently perform those tasks.

The retailing industry employs vast numbers of employees; if those employees’ jobs are taken over by AI, the risk is mass unemployment rates. A recent government report suggests that cashiers and drivers are particularly threatened as innovations such as automatic checkouts and driverless cars come closer to reality.

It is impossible to predict the future precisely—some AI applications might never find widespread acceptance, and technologies such as driverless cars still need years of testing before they are safe to use widely. But it also is hard to contest the notion that AI is spreading further and further, such that someday soon, retail workers will have to find other ways to earn a living. If they cannot do so, the vast increase in unemployment rates would threaten the entire economy and depress consumer spending overall.

The solution likely will require new forms of job training, job creation in other sectors, and possibly expanded social safety nets. Unfortunately though, such long-term (and expensive) initiatives are often hard to begin, until it’s almost too late.

Discussion Question:

  1. What have been, and what will be, the impacts of an increased use of artificial intelligence on the retailing industry?

Source: Matthew Stern, The Retail Wire, December 30, 2016