For the last couple years, I have done a fair amount of speaking around the country discussing looming technological and demographic changes that will dramatically alter the workers’ compensation industry. In relation to the impact that automation and robotics eventually will have on the workforce, one of the examples I have discussed was the testing of a customer service robot at a Lowes Home Improvement Store in California.

Well, it appears the testing is over, and Lowes is rolling out 22 “Lo-bots” to 11 San Francisco Bay Area locations. The Lo-Bot is bilingual, and will greet people in the store, offering to assist them. When they tell it what they are looking for, it can locate the items and lead the customer to the appropriate aisle. While many would suspect that this robot will take jobs from humans, the executive director of Lowe’s Innovation Labs, Kyle Nel, said it would not. When asked that question he said, “Not at all. This was designed from the ground up to be an assistant to the store helper.”

This just in: Mr. Nel’s position has been eliminated, and the job of Executive Director of Lowes Innovation Labs will now be performed by an app that can be downloaded on your phone for free.

Of course, not all retail automation efforts have met with such stellar success as the Lo-bot. Many people are not aware of this but other chains have tried this process with earlier technologies, and received very mixed results (you really have to read the technology trades to keep up with this. This stuff I’m about to cover is not made up. Really. Well, sort of really. Ok, it is completely fictional. My lawyer made me write that).

Retailing behemoth Walmart tried this recently with their own robotic assistant, called Wal-bot. Wal-bot was dressed in a poorly fitting blue vest with a dangling nametag that read “I are America”. It didn’t actually show anybody where anything was, but it did stand in the doorway and greet people as they came in. Tests with Wal-bot were discontinued when customers kept stealing it.

Bedding retailer Mattress Firm also briefly ventured into the robotic assistant arena, with an entry code named Sleep-bot. It was a short lived effort, as Sleep-bot had battery issues, and for reasons unidentified could never hold a charge.

Not to be outdone, Lowes competitor The Home Depot also tried an automated assistant, which was called the Ho-bot. It was, by all accounts, a dismal failure. Management soon discovered the Ho-bot was demanding cash up front, and for some reason kept leading customers outside to the back of the building.

Sears’ robotic assistant was programmed to completely ignore the customer, as if they weren’t even there. By all accounts it was the most successful retail automation attempt to date, with customers describing it as “damn near lifelike”.

Starbucks virtual assistant, the “Joe-bot”, completely broke down the evening of the Presidential election, and is reportedly despondent beyond repair.

As for the Lo-bot, which is decidedly real, it remains to be seen how well the public accepts the automated assistant. There will be a learning curve on both sides, I expect. It is not yet a perfect technology. In the video example accompanying the article, a person demonstrating the device tells it she wants a hammer, and it leads her to a hammer. I have no idea what would happen if you tell it you want to get hammered.

Now that I think about it, I may have to fly to California just to screw with this thing.

While we may have a bit of fun with this, the fact that technology is advancing at the expense of human employment is not debatable. We are going to see more stories like this, and they will represent a sea change in the number and type of injuries we will see.

Less injuries are certainly not a bad thing. We just need to know the change is coming, and it may be closer than we think. 

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