We’ve all heard about Amazon’s warehouse bots and robotic hoovers, but just how soon will it be before retail robots become the new norm? Answer: sooner than you think.
Flying relatively under the radar, advances in Artificial Intelligence promise the possibility of an increased robotic workforce. Not convinced? I’ll give you some examples:
A hardware store in San Jose, California has employed robot sales assistants, the OSHbots. The robots come fully equipped with features such as touchscreen, store map, inventory, language settings – English and Spanish and a 3D camera for product recognition. In other words, OSHbots know the exact amount and location of a product at any given minute; something even an extremely knowledgeable and talented human sales assistant couldn’t. Representatives have stated that the OSHbots are not designed to reduce staff numbers, but how secure is that promise?
OSHbots are available at $50,000 or £33,106 which seems expensive but as the average salary of a sales assistant in LA is $37,081 the bots have a depreciatory advantage. However, the bots do have some shortcomings. For example, they can’t retrieve something from high shelves, open boxes, or offer advice to customers. There is still a need for human sales assistants, for the moment.
Similarly, staff babysit robo staff, giving them fuel on ‘lunch breaks’ at robot-operated restaurant in Harbin, China. Complete with robot ushers, waiters and chefs, diners are offered the full robotic dining experience which cost 5 million Yuan or £528,630 to create. The menu has over 30 dishes each costing a fast food-friendly average of £4.
Price point may be a drawback of robotic workers but as the market matures, prices will steadily decrease. If service levels improve along with the decrease in cost this would benefit both retailer and shopper. Although, it is anticipated that not all consumers will receive robots well “with every trend is a counter-trend. As the robots roll in, living, breathing, smiling human beings will be a differentiator in retail’s future.”[i]
Consumers have also been targeted with robots intended for domestic use. One innovation comes in the form of counter-top robot Jibo, dubbed “the world’s first family robot.”[i] Developed by MIT professor Cynthia Breazeal, Jibo, can read stories, recognise faces and take group photographs – it’s your family’s very own personal assistant. The price is also more affordable at £397 and will come to market at the end of this year.
Continuing along the assistant route, is Budgee – the robotic shopping trolley. Developed by Five Elements, Budgee “follows you around and carries your stuff”[ii], you drive your Budgee by remote or via an app – it can also be folded away for easy transportation. Although £926 is expensive, Budgee’s functionality could see it become an essential item for all – particularly those with limited mobility.
Large companies are investing in robotics as a viable option for the future, however there is debate around the market’s rate of growth and technological unemployment. One prediction suggests that by 2030 “2 billion jobs will be lost to robots and software but this is based on a hyper-leap in the cognitive ability of machines that may or may not happen”[iii]. Other experts have stated that this will not happen for decades.
It is too soon to tell how quickly the market will grow but for the moment we can be sure that it will and that robots are definitely coming.
[i] Bird, J. 2015. Here Come The Robots In Retail. [online]Huffington Post. <http://www.huffingtonpost.com/jon-bird/here-come-the-robots-in-r_b_5697850.html>
[i] Dianne Francis -As robots start to take over retail, will there be any jobs left? NY Post <http://nypost.com/2015/01/25/as-robots-start-to-take-over-retail-will-there-be-any-jobs-left/>