By Laura Vogel
If you work in retail, food service, warehouses, or health care, your newest co-workers may be robots, not human. Automation is replacing many of the roles done by people. Robots don’t need breaks, don’t form unions, and can work without stopping. Read on to find the details of automation replacing workers who can get sick with COVID or age out of the workplace.
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Self-checkouts are a common sight in supermarkets. But let’s face it, they’re a clunky alternative to the checkout line. Amazon wants to get rid of both of them all together. Last week, Amazon announced that it will be opening two Whole Foods markets—one in Washington, D.C., and one in Sherman Oaks, California — where it will employ its cashierless “Just Walk Out” tech. The company has been experimenting with this technology at stores in Manhattan and Seattle.
At the upcoming high-tech Whole Foods, customers can wave their palm (after linking an image of the body part to Amazon’s proprietary payment system Amazon One), use the Amazon app, or swipe a credit or debit card upon entering the store. Then shop as usual and simply exit when done. According to the Amazon release, “[This] technology is made possible by a combination of computer vision, sensor fusion, and deep learning—similar to what you’d find in a self-driving car.”
In an attempt to solve the worker shortage problem, a number of restaurants across the country have begun experimenting with robot servers.
In Stockton, California, a restaurant has employed a robot waiter — cheekily named the Matradee by manufacturer Richtech Robotics — to deliver food to diners. The Matradee is capable of opening kitchen doors, delivering food, and removing dirty dishes after they are loaded into it.
Restaurants in Dallas, Texas, and South Tampa, Florida are also experimenting with similar robots. “It helps because of the COVID, some customers just prefer the robot deliver to them,” restaurant owner Richard Thai told Tampa Bay’s Fox-13 News. “Customers love it. It is convenient for the wait staff and they love it.”
E-commerce boomed during the pandemic and distribution centers have been having a hard time keeping up. According to trade publication Material Handling & Logistics, warehouses have been dealing with a number of problems including “workers aging out of the workforce, complications from the pandemic, naturally high turnover rates and intense competition.” These worker-strapped warehouses are turning to robotics and automated solutions in order to keep up.
Amazon is no stranger to automation and robots in its warehouses. The retail giant bought robotics company Kiva in 2012 for more $775 million. Earlier this summer, Geekwire reported that the company now has more than 350,000 robots working in its warehouses.
The company’s latest experiments with robots involve assisting its human warehouse workers by doing things like collecting packages on high and low shelves and bringing them to the height of their human co-workers, reducing repetitive-motion injuries.
Amazon’s huge scale makes robotics a tempting proposition. “We find that large firms are more likely to automate low- to middle-skill tasks. The reason for this is that a large retailer such as Amazon can keep a machine busy and use it to its full potential, something that a smaller retailer cannot,” explains Laurence Ales, associate professor of economics at Carnegie Mellon University’s Tepper School of Business.
One of the biggest challenges in the e-commerce supply chain is what’s called “the last mile,” representing the distance products must go between leaving a distribution center and reaching you, the customer. AxleHire, a company that subcontracts out home and office delivery to gig workers, is testing robots to help solve this problem. For the last year, the company has been testing remote-controlled delivery robots developed by the startup Tortoise in Los Angeles. Last week, AxleHire announced that they are expanding the test to other American cities.
And in case the sidewalks and roads are getting too crowded, Google-parent company Alphabet has developed a straight-to-consumer package-toting drone called Wing, which is being tested in Australia. So far, Wing has successfully dropped off over 100,000 deliveries, the Verge reports.
Few industries have been hit harder during the pandemic than health care. The length and intensity of the pandemic has translated into burnout for many in the field. A Washington Post – Kaiser Family Foundation poll done earlier this year before the Delta variant surge found that 3 in 10 health care workers have considered leaving the field because of the pandemic.
Robots and automation have been helping in surprising ways. Boston Dynamics’ robot “dog” Spot has been used in one Boston hospital to take and monitor patients’ vital signs, greet patients remotely, and more, reported National Geographic.
In Singapore’s Changi General Hospital, more than 50 robots have been used to clean, make deliveries and even help with patient rehab, CNN reports.
So where will all of this automation leave human workers? Professor Ales says a lot of roles will be lost to mechanical co-workers, and “it’s likely that [human workers will only] be expected to take on work that is difficult to break down into simple parts.”
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