Lowe’s new in store service representatives won’t need bathroom breaks, vacations, or retirement account. They won’t get sick. Hell, you don’t even have to pay them a salary. And what’s even better, or maybe worse- I’m not quite sure- is that they may be able to help me find the esoteric piece of hardware I need better than the current human ones. And they will be able to do it in as many languages as are necessary.
They’re robots, and you can read about them here. Make sure you watch the video.
I live in the Northwest. As you may know, the Seattle City Council has passed an ordinance to increase the minimum wage in the city over a few years. Well, people do need a living wage. Good for the people who get it. But not so good for the people who lose their jobs or aren’t hired due to higher labor costs. On balance, I don’t know how that all comes out, so please no emails telling me that more people are helped than hurt. I have no idea. Neither, I suspect, do you. Depends over what period of time we’re talking, I suppose.
Meanwhile, the people who make robots should send the Seattle City Council a thank you note and maybe a box of chocolates for subsidizing their business by making robots more economically attractive to potential customers. There are always unintended consequences when you start messing with complex systems.
I’m guessing these robots, and others, are going to get cheaper and work better. This is going to happen faster than we imagine and in places we wouldn’t expect. Who can diagnose a disease faster and better? Your family doctor or a computer with access to every condition, symptoms and diagnostic outcome stored digitally? That computer wouldn’t ignore ebola just because it had never seen it before.
It was, by the way, three months after the current outbreak appeared in Africa that it was finally identified as ebola. Apparently, one specialist who had focused on the disease noted that a lot of the patients were sneezing. That was a symptom he’d seen before.
So here we are in the middle of a still unresolved financial dislocation (how’s that for a benign characterization?) and a game changing technological innovation that’s going to have a huge impact on employment patterns in this country. That last time that happened in this country was in the 30s, when we had another financial dislocation and the mechanization of farming (and the dust bowl) forcing people off their land.
To put a human face on what that was like, you might want to read John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath if you haven’t already.
Over time, the mechanization of farming had a massively positive impact on food production and made people available for other jobs as the U.S. emerged as a global economic power. But it wasn’t pretty and it didn’t happen quickly.
Are robots as game changing as the mechanization of farming? I don’t know, but look for customer service robots in some of the retailers in our industry eventually.