After years of worries that automation will steal people’s jobs, the left is transforming robots from competition to comrades

Zume CEO Alex Garden has been working for years to replace his pizza chain's workers with robots. And, he doesn't think that makes him such a bad guy.

"People say, look, robots are gonna take away jobs. AI is going to take away jobs," Garden recently told Business Insider. "I say that's absolute nonsense. That's a choice."

"We don't automate jobs," Garden added. "We automate boring, dangerous, repetitive tasks."

Zume has made headlines as a chain using robotics and artificial intelligence to make pizza. In 2018, it raised $375 million from Softbank. Now, Garden says, the startup is taking what it learned as a pizza chain and making its delivery tools, packaging, and other tech available to other companies.

A large piece of that puzzle is providing restaurants with tools that will allow them to automate tasks, potentially putting workers out of a job. At Zume, Garden says that employees are typically offered new roles — often promotions — within the company if their position is replaced by a robot. However, if Zume provides fast-food giants with similar tools, it is nearly impossible to guarantee similar care will be taken.

"Every CEO in the world will be forced to adopt automation to maintain a competitive position, so that's unavoidable," Garden said. "But what I would say to them is, when that happens, what will you do then?"

'We should not be haunted by the specter of being automated out of work'

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

Eduardo Munoz/Reuters

Increasingly, it isn't just executives attempting to cut costs who are supporting the rise of robots. Workers' groups and progressive politicians have begun emphasizing the potential upsides.

Mary Kay Henry, the president of Service Employees International Union and a major force behind the Fight for $15 movement, told Business Insider earlier this year that the labor movement shouldn't fight against automation.

"I think we should welcome automation," Henry said. "But, workers need to be a part of the design and the transition. That's what fast-food workers have said."

Henry pointed to Germany, where unionized workers have worked with companies and the government to transition away from fossil fuels. Henry says this shift — while not always smooth — can provide a blueprint for how workers and governments can work together.

"Right now, the way automation is being introduced in the workplace is kind of the wild, wild west. And, the strong will survive," Henry said. "We don't think those are the rules that should govern the introduction of automation."

Read more: The president of the union that helped make a $15 minimum wage a reality at Amazon and Costco reveals how automation could be good news for fast-food workers

Zume Pizza.

Melia Robinson

Democratic Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez shared a similarly optimistic view of automation at SXSW in March.

"We should not be haunted by the specter of being automated out of work. We should not feel nervous about the tollbooth collector not having to collect tolls. We should be excited by that. But the reason we're not excited about it is because we live in a society where if you don't have a job, you are left to die," Ocasio-Cortez said.

"We should be excited about automation, because what it could potentially mean is more time educating ourselves, more time creating art, more time investing in and investigating the sciences, more time focused on invention, more time going to space, more time enjoying the world that we live in. Because not all creativity needs to be bonded by wage."

The rise of automation has typically been framed as dangerous news for workers. The World Economic Forum predicts that half of companies will reduce their full-time workforce by 2022, and McKinsey estimates that as many as one-third of American jobs will disappear by 2030.

However, at least some progressive leaders are urging America to see the bright side. If the US accepts the reality that robots are taking some jobs, they argue, the country can improve how people work and make a living.

Unions have already begun considering more futuristic consequences of automated labor in contracts, such as robots taking over housekeeping in Marriott hotel rooms. Ideas such as universal basic income are gaining buzz while proposals, like New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio's robot tax, that aim to discourage automation are mocked.

Robots can be comrades, not the competition, these progressives argue. The US just needs to figure out how to deal with them before our new coworkers take over the workforce.

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