Saturday, May 16, 2009


The use of robots is becoming more and more common if you believe what you read in the newspapers. I suppose it's a lot like the introduction of computers: many of the appliances and implements that we used every day such as automobiles, VCRs, calculators, televisions and microwave ovens had computer chips embedded as early as the late 1970s but most of us didn't buy a personal computer until the early-mid 1990s. The way I understand it, robots are currently used in manufacturing, medicine and the military but quite soon their use as personal devices in our homes will become widespread.

The only instance that comes to mind is the Roomba, a home vacuum cleaner that is self-propelled and that covers the floors without any need for human intervention after powering on. Throughout most of the 20th century, American popular culture characterized robots as ultimately evil and destined to turn against their human owners or operators. The scientist who invented the robot was usually evil and created the device for nefarious purposes. But I understand that in Japan, the land of Godzilla and other (according to American popular opinion) campy science fiction, robots are seen as benign and actually welcomed. They are expected to care for the elderly or the children and take the drudgery out of routine housework.

But as far as more mainstream applications, I can see a lot happening in a short time. I should first emphasize though, that modern robots are very sophisticated and continue to "learn" after they are implemented. For this reason they can probably take on a large number of our more routine jobs. The first that comes to mind is just about anything that's retail. For stores which sell those things that simply must be bought (and examined beforehand) in person, it is only a matter of time before the cashier is a robot which can respond to your routine questions regarding discounts, store hours, return policy, etc. They may also be able to tell you quite a bit about the product and variations, uses, etc. but I wouldn't expect that immediately.

They say that the automatic teller machines where most of us get our cash has over the years replaced something like 15,000-20,000 bank tellers. I can see the same thing happening to many retail cashiers.

In stores which remain physical entities (i.e. not strictly selling online) and which sell extremely uniform products with brands that everyone trusts (i.e. drugstores, discount department stores) it is entirely plausible that the cashiers will be replaced in part by robots. So in a place like Rite-Aid, Wal-Mart, Walgreens, etc. where each item has a radio-frequency chip, the $9-10 an hour cashier could be most economically replaced by a robotic cashier which could total up an order, desensitize the micro-chip, place it in a bag or box and process payments electronically or with cash. As long as the customer doesn't have too many questions although even there robots are becoming sophisticated enough to decipher a variety of human speech and respond in an intelligible fashion.

The whole question is--as always--economics. Will it be cheaper to purchase these things or to pay clerks the going rate to do the same thing? That of course depends on the going pay rate, which may not include health or other benefits, schedule disruption by absent or sick employees, and the limits that an 8 hour work day imposes. For robots, these costs are weighed against the price of one of these robot-cashiers, their expected useful life, requirements for electricity and maintenance, etc. and the fact that they can work 24/7.

But I'll bet that unless entry level cashiers start selling their labor extremely cheap and are very reliable, at least some retailers will start implementing customer service robots.