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The Robots Are Coming? The Robots Are Coming?

March 21, 2018

Flippy waiting for humans to catch up
Well, I do still think they are, and sooner than we think, although in the spirit of fair play there have been a flurry of reports that suggest otherwise. Or insist that if and when they do come, they will have minimal impact on American jobs.

The most recent apparent setback was the death of a pedestrian in Tempe, Arizona, on Monday, struck by an “autonomous” Uber car, despite the presence of a human safety-driver. In response, Uber has suspended all tests of self-driving vehicles until an investigation is complete. There were several mitigating circumstances: it was dark, the woman was crossing the road outside a lighted crosswalk, she was pushing a bicycle loaded with plastic bags, suggesting she might have been distracted, and she walked abruptly from a center median into the traffic lane. The San Francisco Chronicle reports that the Tempe police chief stated “it’s very clear it would have been difficult to avoid this collision in any kind of mode (autonomous or human-driven) based on how she came from the shadows right into the roadway.” Nonetheless, the legion of Uber drivers in the gig economy are keeping their fingers crossed.

The New York Times reported this week that a FedEx hub in rural North Carolina has a team of robots nicknamed Lucky, Dusty, and Ned, already at work, “tugging” large and irregular items that can’t fit on a conveyer belt across the 630,000-square-foot freight depot. Despite initial fears of job losses, a senior FedEx manager maintains that “Everyone will have a job,” but that it just might be a different job. Projections are that the “tugging” robots will eventually replace only 25 workers in the hub, which currently employs 1300 people, and has been adding 100 new jobs ever year.

That math works, for now, as long as growth continues. And the Times reports “the desire of companies to rely on robots isn’t abating. FedEx is already exploring the use of robotics in the concrete yards outside its hubs, where workers move freight with forklifts and other vehicles. On the second floor of the North Carolina hub, where most packages race down conveyor belts, the company is preparing to install a system that can automatically recognize packages that need special handling. In the past, that also required a paid worker.” Feel free to draw your own conclusions.

Then there’s the update on “Flippy,” being tested in California by CaliBurger. Last week’s distressing headline in USA Today about my favorite robot being temporarily taken offline was, “Flippy the burger-flipping robot is on a break already.” The true story is even more distressing to minimum-wage, carbon-based life forms. Flippy created such a surge of customer traffic that the workers weren’t able to keep up with their end of the bargain. “The restaurant is short of humans to prepare the patties for the grill and then pile on the lettuce and other fixins',” said Anthony Lomelino, chief technology officer for Cali Group. “For now, there's no robot for those tasks.” CaliBurger’s solution is to “spend more time on training humans to keep up.”

Finally, several readers alerted me to a Barron’s report that headlined “Robots Won’t Solve the Worker Shortage” because “Technology is taking over many jobs, but that’s creating demand for other, higher-level positions.” This bromidic, Wall Street sell-side sheet trots out the usual argument that humans will simply move up in the value chain as robots take over the menial, repetitive jobs. The story goes so far as to compare today's work situation with that of the 18th century, when most Americans were employed in agriculture: "A century and a half ago, 50% of the U.S. labor force worked in agriculture. Even as agriculture shifted to less than 2% of the labor force, the total pool of workers boomed, filling jobs in technology, manufacturing, and services." Where exactly they think those new jobs are coming from, and why they will not be more cost-effectively filled by robots, is certain to be revealed in a future issue, you can bet on it. Say around the time when my beloved New York Giants win the Super Bowl and my equally beloved New York Yankees win the World Series, both in the same year!

Till Flippy flips again…cheers to all…Garth

For a more entertaining but equally informative take on the same issue, please click here.