Ali Hangan writes:
Karl Marx points out in his critique of the capitalist mode of production that, “Capitalism creates its own gravediggers.” In other words, capitalist production rationally leads to labor less production or the replacement of living labor with dead labor. Marx’s basic logic is this: Competition among capitalists compel every capitalist to cut costs by replacing the worker with a machine/robot. Robots are a one-time capital expenditure and do not require wages, benefits and coffee breaks. The worker that is replaced by the robot is also the customer for the product that the capitalist produces. Without an income, the worker/customer cannot shop, and the capitalist has no customer resulting in a negation of the money based distribution system, that provides the grease for the wheels of capitalist production. While at the sametime, the productive capabilities of robotic production create the material possibilities for a post-capitalist society. A society that frees humanity up from the burden of work and toil. Certainly, in the present, the capitalist grave is not being dug just yet, but Martin Ford again lays out compelling evidence that a plot has been reserved in the cemetery for the capitalist system.
Robots are coming for your job: Amazon, McDonald’s and the next wave of dangerous capitalist “disruption” is followed by New York Times Book Review ‘Rise of the Robots’ and ‘Shadow Work’ and Store Where Robots Sell Robots
Excerpts from Robots are coming for your job: Amazon, McDonald’s and the next wave of dangerous capitalist “disruption”:
“Japan’s Kura sushi restaurant chain has already successfully pioneered an automation strategy. In the chain’s 262 restaurants, robots help make the sushi while conveyor belts replace waiters. To ensure freshness, the system keeps track of how long individual sushi plates have been circulating and automatically removes those that reach their expiration time. Customers order using touch panel screens, and when they are finished dining they place the empty dishes in a slot near their table. The system automatically tabulates the bill and then cleans the plates and whisks them back to the kitchen. Rather than employing store managers at each location, Kura uses centralized facilities where managers are able to remotely monitor nearly every aspect of restaurant operations. Kura’s automation-based business model allows it to price sushi plates at just 100 yen (about $1), significantly undercutting its competitors.”
“Vending machines make it possible to dramatically reduce three of the most significant costs incurred in the retail business: real estate, labor, and theft by customers and employees. In addition to providing 24-hour service, many of the machines include video screens and are able to offer targeted point-of-sale advertising that’s geared toward enticing customers to purchase related products in much the same way that a human sales clerk might do. They can also collect customer email addresses and send receipts. In essence, the machines offer many of the advantages of online ordering, with the added benefit of instant delivery.”
“In 2010, David Dunning was the regional operations supervisor responsible for overseeing the maintenance and restocking of Redbox movie rental kiosks in the Chicago area. Redbox has over 42,000 kiosks in the United States and Canada, typically located at convenience stores and supermarkets, and rents about 2 million videos per day. Dunning managed the Chicago-area kiosks with a staff of just seven…. While the jobs that Dunning and his staff have are certainly interesting and desirable, in number they are a fraction of what a traditional retail chain would create. The now-defunct Blockbuster, for example, once had dozens of stores in greater Chicago, each employing its own sales staff. At its peak, Blockbuster had a total of about 9,000 stores and 60,000 employees. That works out to about seven jobs per store—roughly the same number that Redbox employed in the entire region serviced by Dunning’s team.”
SUNDAY, MAY 10, 2015 10:30 AM PDT
Robots are coming for your job: Amazon, McDonald’s and the next wave of dangerous capitalist “disruption”
Says one builder: “Our device isn’t meant to make employees more efficient. It’s meant to completely obviate them”
Robots are coming for your job: Amazon, McDonald’s and the next wave of dangerous capitalist “disruption”
Julie Hagerty and Leslie Neilsen in Airplane!” (Credit: Paramount Pictures)
In the United States and other advanced economies, the major disruption will be in the service sector—which is, after all, where the vast majority of workers are now employed. This trend is already evident in areas like ATMs and self-service checkout lanes, but the next decade is likely to see an explosion of new forms of service sector automation, potentially putting millions of relatively low-wage jobs at risk.
San Francisco start-up company Momentum Machines, Inc., has set out to fully automate the production of gourmet-quality hamburgers. Whereas a fast food worker might toss a frozen patty onto the grill, Momentum Machines’ device shapes burgers from freshly ground meat and then grills them to order—including even the ability to add just the right amount of char while retaining all the juices. The machine, which is capable of producing about 360 hamburgers per hour, also toasts the bun and then slices and adds fresh ingredients like tomatoes, onions, and pickles only after the order is placed. Burgers arrive assembled and ready to serve on a conveyer belt. While most robotics companies take great care to spin a positive tale when it comes to the potential impact on employment, Momentum Machines co-founder Alexandros Vardakostas is very forthright about the company’s objective: “Our device isn’t meant to make employees more efficient,” he said. “It’s meant to completely obviate them.” The company estimates that the average fast food restaurant spends about $135,000 per year on wages for employees who produce hamburgers and that the total labor cost for burger production for the US economy is about $9 billion annually. Momentum Machines believes its device will pay for itself in less than a year, and it plans to target not just restaurants but also convenience stores, food trucks, and perhaps even vending machines. The company argues that eliminating labor costs and reducing the amount of space required in kitchens will allow restaurants to spend more on high-quality ingredients, enabling them to offer gourmet hamburgers at fast food prices.
Those burgers might sound very inviting, but they would come at a considerable cost. Millions of people hold low-wage, often part-time, jobs in the fast food and beverage industries. McDonald’s alone employs about 1.8 million workers in 34,000 restaurants worldwide. Historically, low wages, few benefits, and a high turnover rate have helped to make fast food jobs relatively easy to find, and fast food jobs, together with other low-skill positions in retail, have provided a kind of private sector safety net for workers with few other options: these jobs have traditionally offered an income of last resort when no better alternatives are available. In December 2013, the US Bureau of Labor Statistics ranked “combined food preparation and serving workers,” a category that excludes waiters and waitresses in full-service restaurants, as one of the top employment sectors in terms of the number of job openings projected over the course of the decade leading up to 2022—with nearly half a million new jobs and another million openings to replace workers who leave the industry.
In the wake of the Great Recession, however, the rules that used to apply to fast food employment are changing rapidly. In 2011, McDonald’s launched a high-profile initiative to hire 50,000 new workers in a single day and received over a million applications—a ratio that made landing a McJob more of a statistical long shot than getting accepted at Harvard. While fast food employment was once dominated by young people looking for a part-time income while in school, the industry now employs far more mature workers who rely on the jobs as their primary income. Nearly 90 percent of fast food workers are twenty or older, and the average age is thirty-five. Many of these older workers have to support families—a nearly impossible task at a median wage of just $8.69 per hour.
The industry’s low wages and nearly complete lack of benefits have drawn intensive criticism. In October 2013, McDonald’s was lambasted after an employee who called the company’s financial help line was advised to apply for food stamps and Medicaid. Indeed, an analysis by the Labor Center at the University of California, Berkeley, found that more than half of the families of fast food workers are enrolled in some type of public assistance program and that the resulting cost to US taxpayers is nearly $7 billion per year.
When a spate of protests and ad hoc strikes at fast food restaurants broke out in New York and then spread to more than fifty US cities in the fall of 2013, the Employment Policies Institute, a conservative think tank with close ties to the restaurant and hotel industries, placed a full-page ad in the Wall Street Journal warning that “Robots Could Soon Replace Fast Food Workers Demanding a Higher Minimum Wage.” While the ad was doubtless intended as a scare tactic, the reality is that—as the Momentum Machines device demonstrates—increased automation in the fast food industry is almost certainly inevitable. Given that companies like Foxconn are introducing robots to perform high-precision electronic assembly in China, there is little reason to believe that machines won’t also eventually be serving up burgers, tacos, and lattes across the fast food industry.
Japan’s Kura sushi restaurant chain has already successfully pioneered an automation strategy. In the chain’s 262 restaurants, robots help make the sushi while conveyor belts replace waiters. To ensure freshness, the system keeps track of how long individual sushi plates have been circulating and automatically removes those that reach their expiration time. Customers order using touch panel screens, and when they are finished dining they place the empty dishes in a slot near their table. The system automatically tabulates the bill and then cleans the plates and whisks them back to the kitchen. Rather than employing store managers at each location, Kura uses centralized facilities where managers are able to remotely monitor nearly every aspect of restaurant operations. Kura’s automation-based business model allows it to price sushi plates at just 100 yen (about $1), significantly undercutting its competitors.
It’s fairly easy to envision many of the strategies that have worked for Kura, especially automated food production and offsite management, eventually being adopted across the fast food industry. Some significant steps have already been taken in that direction; McDonalds, for example, announced in 2011 that it would install touch screen ordering systems at 7,000 of its European restaurants. Once one of the industry’s major players begins to gain significant advantages from increased automation, the others will have little choice but to follow suit. Automation will also offer the ability to compete on dimensions beyond lower labor costs. Robotic production might be viewed as more hygienic since fewer workers would come into contact with the food. Convenience, speed, and order accuracy would increase, as would the ability to customize orders. Once a customer’s preferences were recorded at one restaurant, automation would make it a simple matter to consistently produce the same results at other locations.
Given all this, I think it is quite easy to imagine that a typical fast food restaurant may eventually be able to cut its workforce by 50 percent, or perhaps even more. At least in the United States, the fast food market is already so saturated that it seems very unlikely that new restaurants could make up for such a dramatic reduction in the number of workers required at each location. And this, of course, would mean that a great many of the job openings forecast by the Bureau of Labor Statistics might never materialize.
The other major concentration of low-wage service jobs is in the general retail sector. Economists at the Bureau of Labor Statistics rank “retail salesperson” second only to “registered nurse” as the specific occupation that will add the most jobs in the decade ending in 2020 and expect over 700,000 new jobs to be created. Once again, however, technology has the potential to make the government projections seem optimistic. We can probably anticipate that three major forces will shape employment in the retail sector going forward.
The first will be the continuing disruption of the industry by online retailers like Amazon, eBay, and Netflix. The competitive advantage that online suppliers have over brick and mortar stores is already, of course, evident with the demise of major retail chains like Circuit City, Borders, and Blockbuster. Both Amazon and eBay are experimenting with same-day delivery in a number of US cities, with the objective of undermining one of the last major advantages that local retail stores still enjoy: the ability to provide immediate gratification after a purchase.
In theory, the encroachment of online retailers should not necessarily destroy jobs but, rather, would transition them from traditional retail settings to the warehouses and distribution centers used by the online companies. However, the reality is that once jobs move to a warehouse they become far easier to automate. Amazon purchased Kiva Systems, a warehouse robotics company in 2012. Kiva’s robots, which look a bit like huge, roving hockey pucks, are designed to move materials within warehouses. Rather than having workers roam the aisles selecting items, a Kiva robot simply zips under an entire pallet or shelving unit, lifts it, and then brings it directly to the worker packing an order. The robots navigate autonomously using a grid laid out by barcodes attached to the floor and are used to automate warehouse operations at a variety of major retailers in addition to Amazon, including Toys “R” Us, the Gap, Walgreens, and Staples.
A year after the acquisition, Amazon had about 1,400 Kiva robots in operation but had only begun the process of integrating the machines into its massive warehouses. One Wall Street analyst estimates that the robots will ultimately allow the company to cut its order fulfillment costs by as much as 40 percent.
The Kroger Company, one of the largest grocery retailers in the United States, has also introduced highly automated distribution centers. Kroger’s system is capable of receiving pallets containing large supplies of a single product from vendors and then disassembling them and creating new pallets containing a variety of different products that are ready to ship to stores. It is also able to organize the way that products are stacked on the mixed pallets in order to optimize the stocking of shelves once they arrive at stores. The automated warehouses completely eliminate the need for human intervention, except for loading and unloading the pallets onto trucks. The obvious impact that these automated systems have on jobs has not been lost on organized labor, and the Teamsters Union has repeatedly clashed with Kroger, as well as other grocery retailers, over their introduction. Both the Kiva robots and Kroger’s automated system do leave some jobs for people, and these are primarily in areas, such as packing a mixture of items for final shipment to customers, that require visual recognition and dexterity. Of course, these are the very areas in which innovations like Industrial Perception’s box-moving robots are rapidly advancing the technical frontier.
The second transformative force is likely to be the explosive growth of the fully automated self-service retail sector—or, in other words, intelligent vending machines and kiosks. One study projects that the value of products and services vended in this market will grow from about $740 billion in 2010 to more than $1.1 trillion by 2015.Vending machines have progressed far beyond dispensing sodas, snacks, and lousy instant coffee, and sophisticated machines that sell consumer electronics products like Apple’s iPod and iPad are now common in airports and upscale hotels. AVT, Inc., one of the leading manufacturers of automated retail machines, claims that it can design a custom self-service solution for virtually any product. Vending machines make it possible to dramatically reduce three of the most significant costs incurred in the retail business: real estate, labor, and theft by customers and employees. In addition to providing 24-hour service, many of the machines include video screens and are able to offer targeted point-of-sale advertising that’s geared toward enticing customers to purchase related products in much the same way that a human sales clerk might do. They can also collect customer email addresses and send receipts. In essence, the machines offer many of the advantages of online ordering, with the added benefit of instant delivery.
While the proliferation of vending machines and kiosks is certain to eliminate traditional retail sales jobs, these machines will also, of course, create jobs in areas like maintenance, restocking, and repair. The number of those new jobs, however, is likely to be more limited than you might expect. The latest-generation machines are directly connected to the Internet and provide a continuous stream of sales and diagnostic data; they are also specifically designed to minimize the labor costs associated with their operation.
In 2010, David Dunning was the regional operations supervisor responsible for overseeing the maintenance and restocking of Redbox movie rental kiosks in the Chicago area. Redbox has over 42,000 kiosks in the United States and Canada, typically located at convenience stores and supermarkets, and rents about 2 million videos per day. Dunning managed the Chicago-area kiosks with a staff of just seven. Restocking the machines is highly automated; in fact, the most labor-intensive aspect of the job is swapping the translucent movie advertisements displayed on the kiosk—a process that typically takes less than two minutes for each machine. Dunning and his staff divide their time between the warehouse, where new movies arrive, and their cars and homes, where they are able to access and manage the machines via the Internet. The kiosks are designed from the ground up for remote maintenance. For example, if a machine jams it will report this immediately, and a technician can log in with his or her laptop computer, jiggle the mechanism, and fix the problem without the need to visit the site. New movies are typically released on Tuesdays, but the machines can be restocked at any time prior to that; the kiosk will automatically make the movies available for rental at the right time. That allows technicians to schedule restocking visits to avoid traffic.
While the jobs that Dunning and his staff have are certainly interesting and desirable, in number they are a fraction of what a traditional retail chain would create. The now-defunct Blockbuster, for example, once had dozens of stores in greater Chicago, each employing its own sales staff. At its peak, Blockbuster had a total of about 9,000 stores and 60,000 employees. That works out to about seven jobs per store—roughly the same number that Redbox employed in the entire region serviced by Dunning’s team.
The third major force likely to disrupt employment in the retail sector will be the introduction of increased automation and robotics into stores as brick and mortar retailers strive to remain competitive. The same innovations that are enabling manufacturing robots to advance the frontier in areas like physical dexterity and visual recognition will eventually allow retail automation to begin moving from warehouses into more challenging and varied environments like stocking shelves in stores. In fact, as far back as 2005, Walmart was already investigating the possibility of using robots that rove store aisles at night and automatically scan barcodes in order to track product inventories.
At the same time, self-service checkout aisles and in-store information kiosks are sure to become easier to use, as well as more common. Mobile devices will also become an ever more important self-service tool. Future shoppers will rely more and more on their phones as a way to shop, pay, and get help and information about products while in traditional retail settings. The mobile disruption of retail is already under way. Walmart, for example, is testing an experimental program that allows shoppers to scan barcodes and then checkout and pay with their phones—completely avoiding long checkout lines. Silvercar, a start-up rental car company, offers the capability to reserve and pick up a car without ever having to interact with a rental clerk; the customer simply scans a barcode to unlock the car and then drives away. As natural language technology like Apple’s Siri or even more powerful systems like IBM’s Watson continue to advance and become more affordable, it’s easy to imagine shoppers soon being able to ask their mobile devices for assistance in much the same way they might ask a store employee. The difference, of course, is that the customer will never have to wait for or hunt down the employee; the virtual assistant will always be instantly available and will rarely, if ever, give an inaccurate answer.
While many retailers may choose to bring automation into traditional retail configurations, others may instead elect to entirely redesign stores—perhaps, in essence, turning them into scaled-up vending machines. Stores of this type might consist of an automated warehouse with an attached showroom where customers could examine product samples and place orders. Orders might then be delivered directly to customers, or perhaps even loaded robotically into vehicles. Regardless of the specific technological path ultimately followed by the retail industry, it’s difficult to imagine that the eventual result won’t be more robots and machines—and significantly fewer jobs for people.
Excerpted from “Rise of the Robots: Technology and the Threat of a Jobless Future” by Martin Ford. Published by Basic Books, a division of the Perseus Books Group. Copyright 2015 by Martin Ford. Reprinted with permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.
Martin Ford, the founder of a Silicon Valley–based software development firm, has over twenty-five years of experience in computer design and software development. The author of The Lights in the Tunnel: Automation, Accelerating Technology, and the Economy of the Future, he lives in Sunnyvale, California. Follow him on Twitter at @MFordFuture
New York Times
‘Rise of the Robots’ and ‘Shadow Work’
By BARBARA EHRENREICH
MAY 11, 2015
In the late 20th century, while the blue-collar working class gave way to the forces of globalization and automation, the educated elite looked on with benign condescension. Too bad for those people whose jobs were mindless enough to be taken over by third world teenagers or, more humiliatingly, machines. The solution, pretty much agreed upon across the political spectrum, was education. Americans had to become intellectually nimble enough to keep ahead of the job-destroying trends unleashed by technology, both robotization and the telecommunication systems that make outsourcing possible. Anyone who wanted a spot in the middle class would have to possess a college degree — as well as flexibility, creativity and a continually upgraded skill set.
But, as Martin Ford documents in “Rise of the Robots,” the job-eating maw of technology now threatens even the nimblest and most expensively educated. Lawyers, radiologists and software designers, among others, have seen their work evaporate to India or China. Tasks that would seem to require a distinctively human capacity for nuance are increasingly assigned to algorithms, like the ones currently being introduced to grade essays on college exams. Particularly terrifying to me, computer programs can now write clear, publishable articles, and, as Ford reports, Wired magazine quotes an expert’s prediction that within about a decade 90 percent of news articles will be computer-generated.
It’s impossible to read “Rise of the Robots” — for review anyway — without thinking about how the business of book reviewing could itself be automated and possibly improved by computers. First, the job of “close reading,” now commonly undertaken with Post-its and a felt-tip red pen, will be handed off to a scanner that will instantly note all recurring words, phrases and themes. Next, where a human reviewer racks her brain for social and historical context, the review-bot will send algorithms out into the ether to scan every other book by the author as well as every other book or article on the subject. Finally, all this information will be synthesized with more fairness and erudition than any wet, carbon-based thinking apparatus could muster. Most of this could be achieved today, though, as Ford notes, if you want more creativity and self-reflexivity from your review-bot, you may have to wait until 2050.
This is both a humbling book and, in the best sense, a humble one. Ford, a software entrepreneur who both understands the technology and has made a thorough study of its economic consequences, never succumbs to the obvious temptation to overdramatize or exaggerate. In fact, he has little to say about one of the most ominous arenas for automation — the military, where not only are pilots being replaced by drones, but robots like the ones that now defuse bombs are being readied for deployment as infantry. Nor does Ford venture much into the spectacular possibilities being opened up by wearable medical devices, which can already monitor just about any kind of biometric data that can be collected in an I.C.U. Human health workers may eventually be cut out of the loop, as tiny devices to sense blood glucose levels, for example, learn how to signal other tiny implanted devices to release insulin.
But “Rise of the Robots” doesn’t need any more examples; the human consequences of robotization are already upon us, and skillfully chronicled here. Although the unemployment rate has fallen to officially acceptable levels, long-term unemployment persists, and underemployment — part-time jobs when full-time jobs are needed, or jobs that do not reflect a worker’s education — is on the rise. College-educated people often flounder for years after graduation, finding temp jobs and permanent roommates. Adults of both sexes are drifting out of the work force in despair. All of this has happened by choice, though not the choice of the average citizen and worker. In the wake of the recession, Ford writes, many companies decided that “ever-advancing information technology” allows them to operate successfully without rehiring the people they had laid off. And there should be no doubt that technology is advancing in the direction of full unemployment. Ford quotes the co-founder of a start-up dedicated to the automation of gourmet hamburger production: “Our device isn’t meant to make employees more efficient. It’s meant to completely obviate them.”
Ford offers little hope that emerging technologies will eventually generate new forms of employment, in the way that blacksmiths yielded to autoworkers in the early 20th century. He predicts that new industries will “rarely, if ever, be highly labor-intensive,” pointing to companies like YouTube and Instagram, which are characterized by “tiny workforces and huge valuations and revenues.” On another front, 3-D printing is poised to make a mockery of manufacturing as we knew it. Truck driving may survive for a while — at least until self-driving vehicles start rolling out of Detroit or, perhaps, San Jose.
The disappearance of jobs has not ushered in a new age of leisure, as social theorists predicted uneasily in the 1950s. Would the masses utilize their freedom from labor in productive ways, such as civic participation and the arts, or would they die of boredom in their ranch houses? Somehow, it was usually assumed, they would still manage to eat.
Come to find out, there’s still plenty of work to do, even if no one is willing to pay for it. This is the “shadow work” that Craig Lambert appealingly brings to light in his new book on “the unpaid, unseen jobs that fill your day.” We take it for granted that we’ll have to pump our own gas and bus our own dishes at Panera Bread. Booking travel reservations is now a D.I.Y. task; the travel agents have disappeared. As corporations cut their workforces, managers have to take on the work of support staff (remember secretaries?), and customers can expect to spend many hours of their lives working their way through menus and recorded advertisements in search of “customer service.” At the same time, our underfunded and understaffed schools seem to demand ever more parental participation. Ambitious parents are often expected not only to drive their children to and from school, but to spend hours carrying out science projects and poring over fifth-grade math — although, as Lambert points out, parental involvement in homework has not been shown to improve children’s grades or test scores.
“Shadow Work” is generally a smooth ride, but there are bumps along the way. The definition of the subject sometimes seems to embrace every kind of unpaid work — from the exploitative, as in the use of unpaid interns, to the kind that is freely undertaken, like caring for one’s own family. At times the book gets weighed down by an unwarranted nostalgia for the old days, when most transactions involved human interactions. For example, Lambert grants that home pregnancy tests offer women “more privacy and more control,” while also lamenting — as no woman ever has — that they cut out the doctor and thus transform “what can be a memorable shared event into a solitary encounter with a plastic stick.”
Lambert, formerly an editor at Harvard Magazine, is on firmer ground when he explores all the ways corporations and new technologies fiendishly generate new tasks for us — each of them seemingly insignificant but amounting to many hours of annoyance. Examples include deleting spam from our inboxes, installing software upgrades, creating passwords for every website we seek to enter, and periodically updating those passwords. If nothing else, he gives new meaning to the word “distraction” as an explanation for civic inaction. As the seas rise and the air condenses into toxic smog, many of us will be bent over our laptops, filling out forms and attempting to wade through the “terms and conditions.”
Lambert falls short of calling for the shadow workers of the world to go out on strike. But that’s what it might take to give us the time and the mental bandwidth to confront the dystopian possibilities being unleashed by technology. If middle-class jobs keep disappearing as wealth piles up at the top, Martin Ford predicts, economic mobility will “become nonexistent”: “The plutocracy would shut itself away in gated communities or in elite cities, perhaps guarded by autonomous military robots and drones.” We have seen this movie; in fact, in one form or another — from “Elysium” to “The Hunger Games” — we’ve been seeing it again and again.
In “Rise of the Robots,” Ford argues that a society based on luxury consumption by a tiny elite is not economically viable. More to the point, it is not biologically viable. Humans, unlike robots, need food, health care and the sense of usefulness often supplied by jobs or other forms of work. His solution is blindingly obvious: As both conservatives and liberals have proposed over the years, we need to institute a guaranteed annual minimum income, which he suggests should be set at $10,000 a year. This is probably not enough, and of course no amount of money can compensate for the loss of meaningful engagement. But as a first step toward a solution, Ford’s may be the best that the feeble human mind can come up with at the moment.
RISE OF THE ROBOTS
Technology and the Threat of a Jobless Future
By Martin Ford
334 pp. Basic Books. $28.99.
The Unpaid, Unseen Jobs That Fill Your Day
By Craig Lambert
277 pp. Counterpoint. $26.
Correction: May 12, 2015
An earlier version of the biographical note with this review omitted part of the name of the journalistic initiative of which the reviewer is the founding editor. It is the Economic Hardship Reporting Project, not the Economic Hardship Project.
Barbara Ehrenreich, the founding editor of the Economic Hardship Reporting Project, is the author of “Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America.”
The Atlantic Magazine
May 12th, 2015
The Store Where Robots Sell Robots
A place where the employees and the merchandise are machines
Arika Bunfill has heard it all.
“Are you real?”
“Will you clean my house too?”
“Will you go out with me?”
It’s hard out there for a robot.
Bunfill works at the Beam store in downtown Palo Alto, California. Scratch that. Bunfill works from her comfortable home in Vacaville, about 90 miles away. But her presence, via Beam, a teleconference robot that looks like the offspring of a computer and a Segway, roams the floor at what Beam reps say is the world’s first and only unmanned store. That’s right, no human beings work at the store—it’s operated 100-percent remotely by folks like Bunfill.
“Hello ladies,” Bunfill says cheerfully to two women walking by the brightly lit shop. They are momentarily stunned by her greeting from a flat panel face, but then walk away, glancing back once. Bunfill is undeterred. She maintains herbonhomie, swivels her wheeled robotic base, and begins to chat up Vish Sastry and Kaval Ali, a young couple on their first date. Ali, a trademark paralegal, is unfazed that she’s carrying on a conversation with a machine. “This is so Silicon Valley,” she said with a dismissive wave.
Tom Wyatt is the store manager but he only stops by about once a week—mostly because he’s a big fan of Cream, the trendy ice-cream shop across the street. Wyatt and a robot, controlled remotely by Michelle Posey, will head over there together. The sight of a man and robot getting banana walnut fudge together is a stunt that draws lots of attention—exactly what Wyatt wants. “Once you see the Beam in real time, it’s easy to understand the value,” Wyatt said.
Inline image 2
“The live environment is really effective,” said Erin Rapacki, Beam’s director of marketing. Effective means sales. The robots, after all, are trying to sell themselves. Posey, 29, joined the 30-person team in December and works four-hour shifts, five or six days a week. At the start of her shift, she simply logs into the system from her home in Monterey. From there, Posey can open and close the front doors of the retail space, adjust lighting and temperature, pilot the Beam around the store, answer questions about the product, and wow curious kids by dispensing brightly colored skittles from a tricked-out candy canister. With a few exceptions, adjusting to an unmanned space was seamless. Wyatt clumsily strapped a leaf blower on a Beam’s base, and when trash clutters up the polka-dotted carpet entrance, one of the pilots will assume cleanup duty and whirl the Beam around the store.
For Posey, pivoting from her job as a blow-dry bar manager was a welcome change. “I used to spend four hours a day commuting in my car to my job,” said Posey. “This allows me to have a life because I work from home and it’s really interesting.”
Standing at five feet two inches, the screen is set on two long legs that jut out of a wheeled base. The Beam slides around as if it were on ice skates. There’s nifty parking assist function that guides the Beam into its charging dock, speed control, and a “party mode” setting that silences the back-facing microphones and reduces the ambient noise—perfect, said Rapacki, for networking receptions and factory visits where loud machinery might interfere with a one-on-one conversation. Shoppers can visit the store to take one of two versions, the Pro or the Plus, for a spin. The Plus is a smaller and less expensive version designed for personal use—just two hours of battery life—while the Pro has eight hours of battery life and is designed for conversations up to 20 feet away. Managers at companies like Power Bright have Beam robots stationed at plants in China.Beam says it has one customer, a graduate student at the University of Maryland who suffers from spinal muscular atrophy, who is able to attend classes remotely and even walk the halls with classmates using Beam.
The robot moves at about two miles per hour, which matches the walking pace of an average human. “The interactive piece is what separates us from traditional video tele-conferencing,” said Posey. “Non-verbal cues, like where we stand for instance, are easy to pick up.”
Meanwhile, back at the Beam store, Ben Day, a pilot who works from his home in Danville, California, is educating a couple and hoping to close a deal. Since the store opened, there have been quite a few sales of the smaller Beam Plus version—Wyatt wouldn’t say how many—but it’s enough to warrant a second store in San Francisco. Bunfill, Posey, Day, and the others bounce between locations when backup is needed but mostly work one shift at one location. Friday and Saturday nights are the busiest.
“We get a lively crowd,” said Day, 26. Day sits in front of a backdrop that looks a bit like grammar school picture-day. He’s friendly and laughs a lot when interacting with customers, particularly when he parks the Beam outside on University Avenue, an artery where Stanford University students mix with families and hipsters.“The Beam frees people up to say things they might not say in person,” said Day who, like Bunfill, fields inane questions and requests for dates adding, “it’s changed the way I talk to people too … I’m more outgoing and courageous.”
And there are other perks. Posey beamed into a party at a New York museum and even twirled around the dance floor. “I’ve never been to New York but I feel like I have,” she said.
“For me, I am driven by two main philosophies: Know more today about the world than I knew yesterday. And lessen the suffering of others. You’d be surprised how far that gets you.” —- Neil De Grasse Tyson