Robots Wanted

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A couple weeks back, my son and I went to a Ramen place in Tigard, and our order was delivered by a robot that looked like R2D2 with a tray.  McDonald’s is using robots at many locations and has what appear to be ATM machines to take your order instead of smiley, helpful counter people.  

While this novel application of technology is fun to observe, it does make me wonder about how much more of this we’ll be seeing going forward.  Just think of how many jobs could probably be done by robots.  Do we really need bank tellers?  Do we need receptionists?  Do we need shipping/receiving people, welders, gas station attendants, those STOP/SLOW sign holders at construction sites?  The list is endless, and the logic behind the use of robots really makes more and more sense with each passing day that human options seem to be waning from the labor market.

Robots don’t call in sick. They don’t talk on their cell phones. They don’t take long lunches, roll their eyes, get PTO, have attendance issues, inconsistency issues, car issues, or even have to commute.  Has the time come to stop trying to lure reluctant entry-level workers into the job market and instead invest in robots?  I can see many great arguments for that, but at the same time cringe at the thought of losing the humanity of interfacing with actual people.  

Where does society weigh in on this?  Would you prefer your next Starbucks experience to begin by being greeted by a robot in a green apron & hat asking you for your order, mixing in a ‘So, how’s your day going?’ or ‘Gee, have you lost weight?’ for good measure?  The making of the drink also seems like something robotics can handle.  I’ve often enjoyed the perfectly good coffee drinks at car dealerships or hotel lobbies that were made by machines, but I’m no connoisseur.  This might make it possible for the Starbucks of the world to be open 24 hours, 7 days a week.  Is this a trade-off you’d value?

We are at a crossroads in this whole employee thing.  Well-funded companies are already experimenting with robots and automation, and it’s only a matter of time before it becomes more mainstream.  I’m not sure this is a good or bad thing.  I think we can all see its practicality.  And likewise, I can fully understand the frustration so many employers have trying and failing to assemble employees to fill positions within their organizations.  Perhaps it’s time to embrace this reliable form of labor as an alternative to humans. 

One might argue that ‘They’re taking our jobs!’ (Gee, when have I heard that before), but it isn’t like McDonald’s and Starbucks (just easy examples) will be laying off thousands of willing workers to save money on labor, they’re just responding to the challenges they face chronically trying to find decent labor to fill their positions. They can’t tell their shareholders that they are sorry about the slowdown in sales due to labor shortages, they are bound to find solutions, and robots are a solution.

So, the next time you see a robot serving you Ramen, perhaps just smile and accept this new style of delivery as a sign of the times and enjoy it.  You are likely to see a whole lot more of it moving forward. 

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