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Monday, January 8, 2024

Could You be Replaced by a Robot?

 By Catherine Powell

Image courtesy Pxhere

I was scanning the news feeds yesterday when I saw something that caught my eye: The world's first robotic McDonald's restaurant.  One Ft Worth, Texas fast food eatery has done away with almost half its staff by eliminating the employees responsible for taking and delivering orders.  Instead of speaking to a person, all orders at the restaurant are placed by a touchscreen at the restaurant or via app.  While the food is still prepared by humans, all orders are delivered robotically.  This particular Mickey D's only offers takeout which also eliminates the employees who typically bus the tables.  (Check out the YouTube video below.)  While this particular fast food restaurant hasn't entirely done away with its staff, a quick web search discovered at least two that do in the US, which I'll detail below.  This got me to thinking about how many of us could wind up being replaced in the near future by robots.  The answer to that question could shock you.


Coming soon to a strip mall near you!

CaliExpress, a Pasadena, California burger restaurant claims to be the country's first 100% robotic fast food restaurant.  Not only are orders processed and delivered robotically, all the food offered at the restaurant is prepared by robots, including Flippy the automated fry-bot.  This means the only living, breathing employees at the eatery will be those few needed to supervise and repair the robots.  (Click here to check out the video and blog;)

Mezli is a 100% robotic restaurant in San Francisco that offers Mediterranean meals that are prepared and delivered with no human intervention.  Designed by a trio that includes a software engineer, a robotics wunderkind, and an aerospace engineer, Mezli is a cross between a takeout restaurant and a vending machine.  The physical plant consists of a refrigerated shipping container crammed with technology designed to apportion, cook, and deliver grain bowls starting at $6.99.  The robotic restaurant can deliver 75 orders per hour.  

Restaurants aren't the only place where robots are replacing workers.  Amazon has been using robots in their warehouses for years.  According to Elon Musk, his second generation Optimus humanoid robot will soon be available for around $20,000.  A recent blog on futurism.com revealed that, "According to the company, Optimus Gen 2 can walk 30 percent faster than its predecessor and is 22 pounds lighter as well. The company has seemingly put a heavy focus on the robot's dextrous hands, which feature tactile sensors on each fingertip, allowing it to carefully handle objects. During a Telsa Bot update for shareholders in May, Musk claimed that the "Optimus stuff is extremely underrated" and that he was confident in predicting that the robot would account for a "majority of Tesla's long-term value." 

The blog goes onto state that Musk predicted that the Optimus robot would soon begin to replace some production staff at Tesla factories.  As Asimovian as this concept might seem, the Wizard of Tesla isn't the only one itching to make billions by creating human replacements.  Fortune Magazine reported last year that several other  companies are already entering the market.  In an article entitled, Robot startups see huge market in replacing human workers, both humanoid and human-centric robots that are being sold to either help or replace humans were revealed.  These included bots designed to do everything from stocking shelves and unloading delivery vehicles, to warehouse and factory work.  Perhaps you've already seen some of these automatons perusing the shelves at your local big box store.  If you haven't yet had the pleasure, you soon will, because robots are all the rage, especially with the reported labor shortages and higher minimum wages that have occurred since the end of the pandemic.  

“There’s not enough people doing these jobs, so the market’s massive,” said Figure AI CEO Brett Adcock. “If we can just get humanoids to do work that humans are not wanting to do because there’s a shortfall of humans, we can sell millions of humanoids, billions maybe.”

At least that's the soft sell being used by the robots human overlords.  They stress that robots are entering the workforce to help ease burdensome or dangerous tasks that people would just as soon avoid.  However, employers see it differently.  Some are more interested in augmenting the bottom line than in easing the anxieties of their staff.  Just as with the personal computer industry, as soon as robots start being mass produced, the price of acquisition is bound to fall.  I can still remember purchasing my first desktop IBM clone in 1987 for $2,500 that could do little more than word processing and spreadsheets.  Today you can buy a powerful laptop for less than $500.  Once the price of robots falls and their capabilities improve, I predict it won't be long before many jobs now being performed by people will be turned over to robots.  

Image courtesy Pxhere

While robots are currently being employed to fulfill the tasks deemed too dull, dirty, and dangerous, how long will it be before they begin to supplant workers who are quite content performing manual labor?  I hate to break it to you, but this day has already arrived.  Bricklaying robots are currently on the market.  Touted as being superior to their human counterparts, they can tirelessly lay up to 3,000 bricks per day while using less than half the mortar applied by human bricklayers.  This means they can complete projects much faster and with far less waste than traditional bricklayers do.  Add to this the facts that they don't require lunch breaks, never call in sick, and don't ask for benefits, and it's only a matter of time before this occupation is forever altered. One bricklaying robot manufacturer has even coined a catchy name for its automaton: SAM, which stands for Semi-Autonomous Mason.

The House that Vulcan Built

Why stop with bricklaying when a robot can build an entire house?  That's right, there are several robots that can build the exterior of a home far faster than any human.  One is named Vulcan.  He's been constructing homes in Texas since 2021.  Standing at 15.5 feet tall and 46.5 feet wide, he's hardly what one would call handsome.  But that doesn't stop him from 3D printing a home is as little as three weeks, which is 30% faster than traditional construction. Not only is Vulcan faster than his human counterparts, he's a lot quieter and tidier too.  A 2023 blog on Bloomberg.com stated, "In contrast to the din of a typical construction site swarmed by laborers hammering wood frames and hanging drywall, quiet pervades Wolf Ranch — the silence punctuated by the ambient hum of printers attended to by four workers apiece. Instead of a foreperson directing a construction crew from a blueprint, an Icon employee holds a tablet loaded with software for the eight different Genesis Collection homes that the Vulcan is programmed to construct. The building site is clean too; there’s virtually no construction debris to be hauled off to a landfill."

Starting at around $400,000, Genesis homes are competitively priced with traditional new home construction. What's not to like?  Even from an environmental point of view, 3D printed homes outshine more traditional construction methods.  While concrete construction is carbon-intense, the finished product is so airtight that 3D printed homes are more energy-efficient than traditional homes.  Plus, they require a much smaller construction crew who won't be burning gas to get to and from the construction site. Since 3D construction is quieter, these 3D machines can run day and night which means a faster build.  While this kind of construction has yet to upend more traditional methods of home construction, it's only a matter of time before this or some other kind of automated building systems dramatically reduce the size of construction crews here and elsewhere.

Do office workers have to fear losing their jobs?

While robots have yet to make a huge impact on white collar jobs, 44% of businesses reported in 2023 that artificial intelligence is likely to start replacing office workers this year.  The first wave of AI-induced layoffs is expected to concern occupations as diverse as customer service and corporate research, to collections and staff writers.  (It was no coincidence that the recent Hollywood strike was caused largely by fears that screenwriters and actors could soon be deemed redundant by AI.)  According to a 2022 blog by BYU News entitled, "Robots are taking over jobs, but not at the rate you might think," thus far only14% of workers say they've been replaced by a robot.  Two or three times as many fear they may soon lose their jobs to robots. The blog goes onto report that while the fear of job loss is being stoked by apocalyptic headlines, "...robots aren’t displacing workers. Rather, workplaces are integrating both employees and robots in ways that generate more value for human labor. An everyday example is an autonomous, self-propelled machine roaming the isles and cleaning floors at your local grocery store. This robot cleans the floors while employees clean under shelves or other difficult-to-reach places. Airplane manufacturers also use robots to paint airplane wings. A robot can administer one coat of paint in 24-minutes – something that would take a human painter hours to accomplish. Humans load and unload the paint while the robot does the painting.

Where No Robot Has Gone Before

Image courtesy Pxhere

Even outer space is considered fair game for robotics.  In 2022, Texas-based Apptronik signed a deal with NASA designed to send a humanoid robot named Apollo into space.  Dubbed the "iPhone of Humanoid Robots," by CNN, the 5' 8" tall, 160 lb robot is designed to work alongside humans, and can be operated via tablet or smartphone.  Equipped with a 4-hour battery that can be swapped out, the robot can operate as long as 22-hours per day.  NASA envisions sending Apollo to the ISS to perform hazardous tasks outside the station that currently entails a spacewalk by astronauts.  The space agency has also stated their intention to employ the robot to build and test environments like lunar and martian habitats before astronauts arrive on either world.  If that's the case, then the first boot prints on Mars could very well be those of Apollo the robot.  In the meantime, Apptronik is also offering Apollo to commercial clients for use  "in factory and warehouse settings doing simple tasks, such as moving boxes and pushing carts around. But over time, Apollo’s functionality will increase through new models and updates to the point where it could be used in construction, the production of electronics, retail spaces, home delivery and even elder care."

If anyone currently engaged in any of these occupations starts to worry that they'll soon be replaced by a robot, all I can say is hone your resume.  There's an app for that.

Catherine Powell is the owner of A Plus All Florida, Insurance in Orange Park, Florida.  To find out more ways to save on flood insurance, check out her website at http://aplusallfloridainsuranceinc.com/

2 comments:

  1. I recently spotted a droid taking inventory at a local big box store. It creeped me out!

    ReplyDelete
  2. If you frequent Sams club, you will see the robot that mops the floors all by itself and it works around the customers. Yeah, people are being replaced!

    ReplyDelete

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