Editor’s Note: This commentary by Chris Kobayashi received an honorable mention — and $50 — in our recent Emerging Writers Contest.

Whenever I shop at Sam’s Club, especially early in the morning when it’s not crowded, I always use the self-checkout lines. There’s often a very friendly Sam’s Club associate who greets me and asks if I need any assistance.  I smile back and shyly decline, since I have, after all, gotten so used to scanning my own purchases.

Of course, the other seven self-checkout lines, whether empty or full, remind me that one employee can now essentially do the job of eight.  Who would have imagined that customers would willingly scan and bag their own items at a store, trading personal customer service for speed and convenience?

The advances in technology, particularly through automation and artificial intelligence, are soon going to have greater impacts on the workforce as businesses find more ways to be efficient and competitive. These impacts are subtle now, but I sense that we’ll be seeing more and more automation within the next decade and beyond. For Hawaii, I’m particularly interested in what these impacts will be and if these impacts will be positive ones.

I had the privilege of attending a national conference on state-level legislation and one of the panels discussed the impact automation and artificial intelligence are having and will have on employment. We have already seen job displacement through grocery store checkout lines, fast food restaurant kiosks, and airline check-in kiosks.

Recently, Amazon has been testing convenience stores with no cashiers where customers can grab items off the shelves and simply walk out. It’s just a matter of time before we start seeing the impacts of automation in the transportation sector as more research and development goes into driverless vehicles for personal, commercial, and public transportation.

While businesses in Hawaii may be slower to incorporate some of the smallest forms of automation — perhaps due to costs — the trajectory of businesses globally suggests that it will be only a matter of time until we start to see automation more widespread. So even though we may not see automation now, it’s coming and I think it’s going to impact Hawaii’s largest job industries, leaving workers extremely vulnerable.

According to a Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism report from April 2018 that analyzed Hawaii’s working population from 2012-2016, Hawaii’s top three industries were accommodation and food services, retail trade, and health care and social assistance. Of course, these top industries shouldn’t come as a surprise since we live in a state where people visit, buy things, eat food, and then leave. Additionally, we have a growing kupuna population and many people need assistance with social services.

Looking deeper into the numbers, however, the real impact may be in the alarming percentage of part-time workers, which, according to DBEDT’s report, make up approximately 22 percent of workers in the state. These part-time jobs, many of which are related to accommodation and food services and retail trade, will serve as the frontlines and battlefields of incorporating these new technologies as these part-time employees see their hours per week dwindle or they themselves become replaced by automation. If jobs like switchboard operators, elevator attendants, and milkmen are obsolete, what other jobs won’t exist in 10, 15 or 20 years?

“But,” you might say, “that would never happen in Hawaii where it’s all about the destination experience.” We could never replace a friendly smile with a machine, right?

Maybe, but what if tourists begin prioritizing convenience and saving money? Perhaps the first-time visitor may want to attend a luau and fly in a helicopter, but what about returning visitors who may prefer more independence and affordability?

Imagine a tourist who arrives at the airport, gets driven by a driverless car to their hotel, and checks into the hotel by kiosk. While this may seem like an impersonal experience, this alternative may be preferable compared to standing in a long line to rent a car, driving through traffic themselves, and then waiting in line again to check in to a hotel.

I’ve even thought about how these implications of a more automated workplace may one day jeopardize my current job, which requires creativity and problem-solving — very human skills.

“Okay,” you might say, “that’s fine for the tourists, but never for us locals. I like it when Aunty takes my order and brings me my food.”

Imagine a family seating themselves at Zippy’s, ordering through an iPad at their convenience, having the food brought out to them by conveyor belt, and paying on their phone without leaving a tip. Won’t a Zip Pac still taste the same? Perhaps even be cheaper?

But not all is doom and gloom. My impressions from the panel at the conference were that since we recognize that automation has and will continue to impact jobs, we can react in the present for what will inevitably be our future. The first thing we can do is slowly change the education system to anticipate and prepare for these upcoming changes and to emphasize and invest in skill development, even after leaving formal education.

When jobs change, workers will need skill development channels through their employer, or other external sources, so that they can be re-skilled. Without skill development, these employees’ work experience and education may become irrelevant in the ever-changing workplace.

The second thing we can do is identify jobs that will probably not go away, even with automation. As one speaker at the conference stated, we need to identify jobs that are “personal,” such as mechanic and surgeon. Technology will improve these jobs, but in these industries, technology is more of a tool that enhances a person’s performance, rather than something that can replace a person altogether.

Third, we need to begin the discovery process for what new jobs will be created through a more automated workplace. At the same time that automation may eliminate certain jobs, there will also be the creation of new jobs through automation that will need to be filled.

Additionally, this may be an opportunity to elevate and promote the trades, which seem to be generally looked down upon these days. Maybe more people will look to trade schools to learn hands-on skills and become a workforce of carpenters, welders, and pipefitters to build the infrastructure we will need in a more automated world.

I’ve even thought about how these implications of a more automated workplace may one day jeopardize my current job, which requires creativity and problem-solving — very human skills.  There’s a chance that artificial intelligence may eventually be used more and more in parts of my job to the point where I might not be needed to carry out the work.

If humans are creatures of habit and there is an algorithm that can detect certain habits, I see it very plausible that artificial intelligence could begin to learn “creativity” to create original work that is satisfactory. For example, a computer, after having analyzed hundreds of thousands of paintings, could pick up patterns in what people like and create works of art that people enjoy.

No human necessary.

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