Kennedy: Automation will kill some jobs, augment others


We’ve all read the lists of jobs that could be made obsolete by artificial intelligence and automation: factory worker, bank teller, telemarketer, journalist (gulp!).

Although such listings aren’t new, a discussion paper published in September by the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia suggested the pace of displacement likely has been accelerated by the coronavirus pandemic.

“[T]he pandemic-induced massive layoffs hit automatable jobs, especially those in the service sectors, particularly hard, putting those jobs at an elevated risk of being fully automated” and never returning, according to the paper.

It quantified the number of at-risk, pre-crisis jobs at 2.6 million nationwide.

So I took some solace in this: “In food, in general, humans aren’t going anywhere, so it’s really about how you supplement that with the right types of automation and AI.”

The statement came from Decker Walker, a partner in the Chicago office of Boston Consulting Group who focuses on agribusiness and food. He was a participant earlier this month in a webinar hosted by The Food Industry on the impact of automation and artificial intelligence on the food industry.

Walker noted at the outset that automation in food “is not new.” Rather, what is new is that technology is at a point where it can be adopted for many applications – but not yet for all.

“Machine vision,” for instance, can distinguish a ripe strawberry from a green one for picking, but has trouble telling fat from meat in a side of beef.

As a result, automation augments human labor at meat-processing plants instead of replacing it. “And that’s a very different use case than ‘I want a robot to very precisely cut the meat off of the bone,’” Walker said.

“There’s a very practical reality, which is the technology just isn’t there to automate many of those steps,” he said.

That will come, though, through further innovation and adoption.

On the retail side of the food equation, automation also can augment instead of replace.

Dave Steck, vice president of IT infrastructure at Schnuck Markets, said the St. Louis-based supermarket chain has deployed the robot “Tally,” developed by Simbe Robotics of San Francisco, to more than half of its 112 stores in four states to track inventory, freeing up human workers for other tasks.

“Tally is a tool for our store teammates,” he said, noting the autonomous robot can identify two to 14 times more out-of-stock items on shelves than humans can. The robot traverses store aisles two to three times a day, capturing inventory for some 35,000 products per store per pass.

Steck said the retailer approached the inventory issue by asking, “What can we do to help the teammates get that product to the shelf, because that’s ultimately what it’s about is that customer satisfaction,” Steck said. “It’s not an efficiency discussion; it’s an effectiveness discussion,” he said of the robot’s use.

Marlene Kennedy is a freelance columnist. Opinions expressed in her column are her own and not necessarily the newspaper’s. Reach her at [email protected]

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