In recent years, a lot of media coverage has been devoted to discussing how quickly robots will take our jobs away — and how many of us will be affected. With dire predictions about robots eating up 800 million jobs by 2030, even the most unassuming observers pin the robot job takeover as taking place within the next four decades.
But that’s not the real story here: The real story is how much robots will automate and take on, freeing us up to do the things that require human input. While some jobs likely will disappear as robotic technology finds ways to streamline them and make them no-brainers, we’ll find new ways to allocate robot resources to manage the things we don’t want to handle.
An example of how robotic automation can make our industries more productive and less taxing can be found in vending machines. While these sales platforms may seem simple on the surface, they offer a glimpse into how robots can help us construct the future to be less taxing, but more purposeful, for human beings.
Eliminating Mindlessness in Favor of Thoughtfulness
Nick Yates is the founder and CEO of Generation NEXT Franchise Brands, which builds the automatic machines that deliver frozen yogurt and ice cream in stores. With more than $130 million in franchise and licensing contracts across more than 230 locations, Yates has seen his company grow very quickly.
Yates says his company’s experience is that most businesses are using robotics as a powerful tool to support their customer service strategies. “By having robots pack boxes quicker, or perhaps provide answers to simple questions for customers, a business owner can find more productive and efficient ways to use the actual human employee who has a better set of skills that should be taken advantage of,” he explains.
It’s important to make a distinction between work that requires insights and work that requires speed: Streamlining is incredibly helpful for the latter but stifling for the former. “Things that enhance productivity, including robots, are what cause economies to grow and for us all to get wealthier on average,” Yates says, “but this is a world where the average may not mean what it used to because it’s a world in which there will be wider gaps between the skilled and unskilled, between those with and without jobs.”
That means we need to carefully rethink how we can best make use of the resources we have: How can we eliminate work that can be automated? How can we position our companies to rely more heavily on human workers’ critical thinking skills than their manual labor?
Automating Vending Through Robots
Yates’ company believes it’s found the solution for the manual vending machine industry: automated robots that deliver frozen yogurt and ice cream. Its robots dispense and serve frozen treats to customers in locations that already capture high levels of foot traffic, but the experience is unique in that customers can order from a digital user interface. That interface provides a selection of up to six flavors and up to six different toppings, preparing the desserts fresh in fewer than 60 seconds.
Yates says that the ice cream-dispensing robots are de facto entertainers as well, dancing and playing music while displaying animation on their screens. This enhances the customer experience — especially for its under-18 audience — and creates engagement, despite the absence of a human ice cream slinger.
These unattended robots are disruptive agents in a heavily service-focused industry. “The industry has been dominated by retail franchises that require traditional brick-and-mortar infrastructures that, unfortunately, now struggle because the cost of labor has increased to a point where it doesn’t make much business sense for the owner/operator,” Yates says. “Vending ice cream that’s delivered fresh to order has never been done before. We saw an opportunity to disrupt and ran with it.”
While many in the food and beverage industry may argue that the customer service experience is the entire marketing platform for restaurants and other food vendors, the growth of Yates’ model shows that humans aren’t put off by customer service presented by a robotic provider. And the model can enable scale that’s not currently cost-effective for most labor-intensive restaurants and food vendors. By repositioning human labor to focus on developing and testing products, food providers can gain flexibility in preparation and distribution, allowing them to even infiltrate difficult-to-crack outlets like stadiums.
What This Means for the Future
While robotic technology was out of reach for many businesses, thanks to their prohibitive cost structures, that’s no longer the case. Yates points out that the technology is getting more affordable as more players enter the space. “Reliability, however, is still questionable,” he says. “As the technology evolves, the cost will drop until we get to a point where buying robots to cook, clean, serve ice cream, or do any task on a consumer level is affordable for everyone.”
Yates acknowledges that incorporating robotic technology isn’t easy for any entrepreneur, but it’s worth the effort if the industry — and company — stands to benefit. “Every industry needs someone willing to be the disruptive force that moves the entire group forward,” he says. “A lot of people are wary of robots and not willing to trust them, but it’s important to remember that we control robotic technology and have a say over how it works for us.”
That control, he admits, can sometimes seem elusive: “Robots can be sensitive and require the best software to operate them well,” he cautions. “Be sure to combine technologies to get the best result.”
While society has long predicted that robots will take over jobs in a deflated, conciliatory tone, it might be time to look at this job loss as a celebration. As robots automate everything from security to vending, they enable humans to put their full effort into the things only they can do.