It will damage some job markets. The money question is, which ones and why?

We are told that the White House’s Christmas dogbots are an improvement over last year’s:

We had a ‘smoking-tail Bo’ last year,” Dowling reminded the team. The mechanized dog in the 2013 White House holiday extravaganza had a little mishap: Its ribbon tail got caught in its motor and started to smolder. (“Luckily, that was the end of the season,” Dowling noted.)

Conveniently, the current no-fire-hazard Bo Obamabot swivels its head caninely once a second, instead of setting fire to its tail.

Many assessments of bot technology swing between praise for the mere entertainment noted above and fear of bizarre developments like the doc bot and the nurse bot. The key difficulty in health care, obviously, is that “care” is the material part of the package, and the bot can’t care by definition.

A more serious challenge, of course, is the automation of repetitive, low wage jobs, jobs which might indeed be done by a job bot.

Just recently, we learned that Amazon rolled out 15,000 bots across 10 U.S. warehouses:

a move that promises to cut operating costs by one-fifth and get packages out the door more quickly in the run-up to Christmas.

The orange 320-pound (145 kg) robots, which scoot around the floor on wheels, show how Amazon has adopted technology developed by Kiva Systems, a robotics company it bought for $775 million in 2012. Amazon showcased to media on Sunday ahead of Cyber Monday, the biggest online shopping day of the year.

This will surely impact the job chances of people who hoped to make a bit of cash as seasonal workers over the holidays.

Similarly, overshadowing all raise-the-minimum-wage campaigns is the spectre of the burger bot:

The company’s robot can “slice toppings like tomatoes and pickles immediately before it places the slice onto your burger, giving you the freshest burger possible.” The robot is “more consistent, more sanitary, and can produce ~360 hamburgers per hour.” That’s one burger every 10 seconds.

If so, it will eat the part time job of the teen and the still-vigorous senior in my own neighbourhood. Can they even afford to eat there any more?

Please note, I don’t doubt (who could?) that raise-the-minimum-wage campaigns are fuelled by moral righteousness and social justice correctness. But if their sign-waving success makes the investment in bots pay better sooner,  the community organizers will still be getting pay cheques for other similar causes while the former minimum wage workers will be lucky to get any pay cheque at all.

That is a dilemma for our times: The high cost of social justice is borne by the recipients, rather than the targets, let alone the advocates.

A typical response to my concern fifty years ago would be to claim that I am too stupid to understand that machines make people more productive. Of course they do. Who doubts it? But the current push is to eliminate the human element altogether. Except for the person who is getting a handsome salary managing the bots. That is what makes the questions so much more complex today.

Meanwhile, is the food industry job bot truly imminent?

Maybe, but just for the record: Quite recently, I was at a large supermarket in Ottawa, Canada, when customers were shopping for the weekend’s cooking and entertainment. There were many checkout counters, advertising Express 8 items or less, Express 12 items or less, regular Checkouts for full carts, Service Desk checkouts for non-standard stuff…

Off by the side was the “automated checkout.” There stood a bright-eyed young employee to help customers figure out how to use it.

I’m sure she earns her keep. I had tried the system years ago, but gave it up. Too complex.

I never had any similar problems with automated banking. Automated banking works because we are either putting money into our account or taking it out. The basic principle is not beyond the reach of average human comprehension.

Not so in a supermarket, which sells thousands of varieties of food and non-food items, under all kinds of warrants and policies. Questions arise frequently.

So the simplest solution even today, in my experience, is to line up in front of a checkout operated by a trained employee with a hot line to the manager instead.

Better still, it is someone we recognize because she lives in the area and we see her every week.

Maybe, in the end, restaurants will bifurcate between bots and rude French waiters. And food shopping will bifurcate between botmarts and farmer’s markets. I know where I will go, given a chance.


Denyse O’Leary is a Canadian journalist, author, and blogger.

Denyse O’Leary is an author, journalist, and blogger who has mainly written popular science and social science. Fellow Canadian Marshall McLuhan’s description of electronic media as a global village...