Robot Jobs: Robotic sales associates are operational in retail stores, and more are on the way.
In 2014, Orchard Supply Hardware announced the release of the OSHbot, an in-store machine customer-service rep on wheels. OSHbot is a semi-intelligent robot able to respond to a variety of customer needs. In time, such bots could potentially replace most retail employees.
The first OSHbots made their debut in November of 2014 at the Orchard Supply on Royal Avenue in San Jose. 14 months later, the trial run is still going, although Lowe's, which owns Orchard Supply, envisions placing them at its other locations throughout California and Oregon.
Created as a collaborative effort between Lowe's Innovation Labs and Fellow Robots, OSHbot was designed to help shoppers navigate stores quickly and easily. At five-feet tall, roughly the size of a small refrigerator, the droid has no arms, only a pair of large LCD screens, a 3D camera sensor, effectively its eye, and a set of wheels at its base that allow it to move.
What does OSHbot do?
The OSHbot's purpose is to respond to the basic needs of shoppers. A customer can talk to it as if it were a typical sales associate. It speaks several languages. It can answer usual questions such as "Where are the hammers?" and then lead the way to the hammers section.
OSHbot also has the ability to recognize hardware visually. Its camera scans an item presented by a shopper, for example, a tool or a specific type of screw or pipe, and then locates matching products on the shelves. It knows exactly what the store has in stock, and where to find it.
When posed a question that requires expertise, OSHbot connects remotely to an employee, at any Orchard Supply location, to get the answers it needs.
Is OSHbot a Job Killer?
As sales associate robots develop and improve, it is safe to assume that major retailers everywhere will make use of them. Expect to see Retail-bots at Safeway, Wal-Mart, Macy's, Sephora, and even in restaurants. They will replace hundreds of thousands of human workers. The International Federation of Robotics projects roughly 150,000 service bots to be installed for professional use by the end of 2018.
This is not to say that retail jobs will disappear entirely. Machines need programming, maintenance, and guidance. Whereas basic associate positions may become obsolete, there will be an increased demand for technicians, developers, managers, as well as experts who can answer questions that robots can't.
Nonetheless, the OSHbot and its eventual successors will certainly disrupt the job market, causing mass unemployment, at least for a while. How hard this will hit? If or when will the market adjust? Only time can tell.
Technological Unemployment, or the replacement of human jobs by robots and Artificial Intelligence, will be the topic of an essay to be published on this site within the next few days. Stay posted. ◼
 "OSHBot robot gears up to offer hardware shopping help" CNET, October 28, 2014
 "Service Robot Statistics: World Robotics 2015 Service Robots" International Federation of Robotics