The world’s first robotized sales assistants were rolled out last month in California. They are nifty, cute – and terrifying.
Nicknamed OSHbots, the two machines cost $50,000 apiece, are 5 feet of plastic on wheels and carry built-in natural language processors, computers, product scanners and navigation tools.
Named after the Orchard Supply Hardware store where they work in San Jose, they greet customers, ask if they need help, identify items, then offer to guide them to the appropriate aisle without bumping into anyone or anything.
At night, they do inventory by cruising the store to identify missing products and update their store map.
The OSHbots will never ask for a raise or call in sick. They also have the recall of a National Merit Scholar, but, on the other hand, they can’t open a box or climb a ladder to reach a hammer. And if you went up to one and shouted “Fire,” it would respond that “Fire extinguishers are on aisle 4 and I can take you there” . . . in English or Spanish.
So far, OSHbots are primitive, as are other automated services, such as Google’s driverless cars. But they won’t always be. Google, Facebook, Amazon, Apple and others are investing billions to make machines smarter than people. And then what happens to America’s 13 million-member retail work force when OSHbot 2.0 or 3.0 arrives on the scene? Are Google and the others going to support the displaced workers?
Amazon has already attacked retail’s work force with its online platform. This summer, it took the next step, rolling out its first battalion of robots, 3,000 so far called Kiva, to replace warehouse workers who drive forklifts, or fetch and file incoming and outgoing products.
This is the face of “technological unemployment” and will accelerate, though how quickly is debatable. One dire prediction is that by 2030, 2 billion jobs will be lost globally to robots and software. But this is based on a hyper-leap in the cognitive ability of machines that may or may not happen. One of Silicon Valley’s foremost entrepreneurs and director of Facebook and eBay, Marc Andreessen, says robots won’t eat all the jobs because they won’t be sophisticated enough for decades.
“There is still an enormous gap between what many people do in jobs today and what robots and AI can replace and there will be for decades,” he wrote in his blog recently.
What happens when that day arrives? Andreessen, like many Silicon Valley optimists, thinks it will be a utopia. Goods and services will be abundant and virtually free. Governments will be fat enough to afford a social safety net needed to retrain or protect people. Workweeks may be reduced to 20 hours and many jobs will go begging. “Creativity, innovation, exploration, art, science, entertainment and caring for others: We have no idea how to make machines do these,” he wrote.
Back on planet Earth, former US Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers is less sanguine. “The economic challenge of the future will not be producing enough. It will be providing enough good jobs,” he wrote in the Wall Street Journal this summer.
In 1965, only one in 20 males between 25 and 54 years of age was out of work. Today, it’s one in six. The Internet already wiped out millions of middle-class jobs. What happens when robots destroy retail and warehouse jobs as well?
Summers suggests that just as the Industrial Revolution led to welfare states for displaced farm workers, the Software Revolution must lead to a super-welfare state to pick up the job and training slack.
The time line varies as to when dislocations will be dramatic, but it’s clear that a deadline looms.
It’s unfashionable to question progress, to wonder whether innovation is always a good thing. It’s happening, the great minds say, so you’d better just get used to it.
But I wonder whether the companies behind OSHbot have really thought it all through. Sure, they may make money, but how much of that will be taxed to pay for the rest of us to do nothing?By: Diane Francis
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