Friday, September 2, 2016

Robotics and Innovation Back in the News

There are news sites and there is satire. I ran across a satire site recently. The headline for the News Examiner said "New McDonald's in Phoenix Run Entirely by Robots." The article is undated, but ran "1 year ago." And not just any robots, but super bots. The article went on to claim that these robots move about the new McDonalds "50 times faster than the average McDonald's employee. 

Now that is fast. The average human walks maybe 2.25 miles per hour (MPH). So, 50 times that speed, or just over 100 miles per hour, would be quite impressive. The mind boggles at the people who read this article and found it believable. Following up on my suspicions, I found that Snopes had already debunked this one. 

Certainly, the day of automation is coming for many of us. In fact, it is already here for some. I have hypothesized on some of this in How will Attorneys (or any of us) Adapt? Changes are coming. It will change the practice of law. See Ross, AI, and the Paradigm Coming. It will change the practice of medicine and more. See, Is Empathy Dead, or just on Life-Support? The change should not surprise us, but the speed of its approach is surprising some. 

No, that does not mean that McDonalds will be run by 100 MPH super robots. Imagine somehow providing my the wrong order in just half the time?

Last year NPR reported on a Restaurant With No (Visible) Workers. Like the automats of the past, this restaurant delivers food to a display case. The customer picks it up. There is no cashier or waitstaff. In a nod to our human resistance to change and lack of preparedness, there is "one attendant on hand to help the tech challenged." Though there are workers in the back preparing the food, this concept is a move toward greater automation. San Francisco is not alone. There are similar operations described in Amsterdam and Japan.

The article also notes that fast food such as McDonalds and Panera are utilizing tablets and touch s
creens for ordering, eliminating the need for cashiers or counter help. I have ordered drinks and paid bills on kiosks at several restaurants recently, including Chili's and Olive Garden. But for now, the restaurants claim that automation is supplementing workforce, not reducing it. According to the Restaurant With No (Visible) Workers the automation "allow(s) operators to move some workers away from cash registers and into the kitchen to help speed up customer service."

But the harbingers are there to indicate that there will be jobs lost. An undated post from Bloomberg Technology headlines "Inside Silicon Valley's Robot Pizzeria." This discusses a company "trying to make a more profitable pizza through robotics."  The company says it plans to "be the Amazon of food." Before we get too worried, this is only a partially automated operation also. A robot only puts the sauce on the pizza. The pie then travels by conveyor belt to "human employees who add cheese and toppings." But, then another "atomaton, Bruno" transfers the pie to the oven. I am thinking that the cheese and topping person should worry about her/his job being next. 

Another harbinger comes recently from Pittsburgh, where Uber is testing self-driving cars. Those Pittsburghers (is that what you call someone from Pittsburgh?) who summon an Uber may soon be assigned one of these "semi-self-governing vehicles." Each is driving itself, but there is an employee in the driver's seat. That is currently required by law, and likely makes the passenger a bit more comfortable. Additionally, each such car comes with a "a co-pilot taking notes."

The Uber engineers and roboticists had altered some Ford Fusions. But, more recently, their program has shifted focus to a Volvo SUV. This effort is in competition with similar efforts being pursued by Google, Tesla, and others. Although the day of fully autonomous vehicles is not here yet, these efforts are taking us that direction rapidly. Bloomberg's article claims that it is coming soon.  Uber's target is a mere 5 years away, with their goal to "build up a completely self-sufficient vehicle by 2021." 

I also came across an interesting counter-blog. This author has some unkind things to say about innovation and technology. He is a vocal proponent of higher minimum wages, and protests anyone concluding that technology should replace workers. He calls it "short-sighted Neanderthal thinking." He contends that robots building hamburgers will not save companies money as there will be no wage earners left to buy hamburgers. That is an interesting point, despite the invective with which it is delivered. 

If the world of tomorrow brings all this innovation and technology, will our lives be better? Despite that question and your perceptions of an answer, it seems that robotics and technology is coming. As with any coming storm, the time to plan is before it hits.  

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