Cool or creepy… or just plain scary if you are a Lowe’s associate. Lowe’s is testing multilingual robots just before the holidays to help out with customer service at one of its subsidiary hardware stores in San Jose, . The 5-foot-tall robots, called OSHbots, will greet customers at the door and ask them what they need. Customers will be able to communicate verbally, or by selecting items from a touch-screen menu.
And it gets better. Customers can show OSHbot (from Orchard Supply Hardware, a subsidiary of Lowes) what they are looking for by displaying an item, such as a screw, in front of the robot’s 3D scanner. OSHbot can immediately report on whether the item is in stock, and not just tell them the aisle, but lead customers through the store to locate it (certain that the aisles will be free of clutter and traffic to make the journey a cinch.)
Lowe’s has said that the robots aren’t meant to replace retail workers, but that seems to buck the trend of what retail workers are actually facing. A recent study by the University of Oxford concluded that as much as half the U.S. workforce is at risk of being replaced by mobile robots and “smart” computers within the next two decades, with retail jobs being the occupations most at risk.
I am all for technology being used to help customer service, and even to improve a company’s bottom line. But this is taking things a bit too far in my opinion. A stationary computer in the store that answers questions, sure. But mobile computers rolling around doing the work of humans?
When I go into a hardware store I enjoy the banter back and forth with the associates as they guide me past my limited knowledge (Mr. Fix it I am not). They offer personal opinions on products they have experience with, and that is something OSHbots clearly cannot do. The risk of removing personal service is one I hope is being evaluated here, and everywhere technology is replacing the human touch.