Automation helping to cut costs, stirring debate over effect on jobs

Automation helping to cut costs, stirring debate over effect on jobs

URBANA — For the past couple weeks, a new food truck has showed up on the University of Illinois campus serving coffee.

Unlike other food trucks, however, this one is staffed by a robot.

"Each cup of coffee takes 40 seconds to make," said Guangzhe Cui, a grad student in electrical and computer engineering and co-founder of the company behind the food truck, Yummy Future.

Customers enter their order on a touch screen, and a robot then gets to work, grabbing a cup, making the drink and delivering the cup to the customer.

Each cup costs around $2 to $3, Cui said.

Office vending machines have had robot coffee makers for years, but Cui said his is better.

"It tastes better than Starbucks," he said.

And he has a bigger vision for Yummy Future; the coffee robot is just their "minimum viable product."

He wants to embed their technology into other use cases and allow other people who want to start businesses to use their technology to lower costs.

When he and his co-founder Yueming Yan started Yummy Future in the fall, they considered what a robot would be able to do.

"We have been trying to dig through what is doable for robots and what is not. It turns out robots cannot do very sophisticated work, but can do very repetitive work," Cui said. "So it can't be a robot chef, but it can do basic work well.

Cui's an optimist when it comes to the question of whether robots and automation will take our jobs.

"There's a thing that people fear robots are going to take over human society. I think that robots will drive costs down. Not just labor costs, but all business costs down," he said. "People can start working on businesses themselves without large amounts of funding."

But not everyone is so optimistic.

About 47 percent of U.S. jobs are susceptible to becoming automated, according to a 2013 study published by the Oxford Martin Programme on Technology and Employment.

That includes a 96 percent chance for coffee-shop workers, 94 percent for accountants and 79 percent for tractor-trailer truck drivers, according to willrobotstakemyjob.com, which compiled data from the 2013 study.

(Don't worry, human resources managers, education administrators and dentists. These jobs all have less than a 1 percent chance of becoming automated.)

Businesses have been adding forms of robots and automation for years, including grocery stores with their self-checkout lines.

In the past month, the Champaign Schnucks added the self-checkout stations.

Schnucks spokesman Paul Simon was surprised it didn't already have self-checkout, as the Savoy and Urbana stores already did for a while.

"The Savoy store opened with them several years ago," he said. "Self-checkout's something we've been offering in stores for close to 20 years."

And he said the stations haven't reduced employees.

"It absolutely does not. There's still a scan attendant, and on top of that, customers still have a choice of traditional checkout lanes offered there," Simon said.

The company is also experimenting with robots in 15 stores in the St. Louis metro area. Robots called Tally check inventory on the shelves to see if products are out of stock.

If it is, an employee is notified, who can then bring more product or order some more.

"It's a tool teammates are using," Simon said. "It's not replacing teammates, it's assisting teammates."

And at McDonald's, customers may have noticed the fairly new digital menus that could potentially take a cashier's job.

But the former owner of most of the local McDonald's, Scott Miller, said that's not what happened.

"Actually, they add jobs. We added a guest experience lead person who's out front helping people use the kiosk," Miller said. "There's a little bit of a learning curve. They're very user-friendly, but maybe people get a little intimidated."

As people get more comfortable with the kiosks, the helper might no longer be necessary, Miller said. But along with the digital menus, McDonald's also now brings the food to the customer.

"That's another person as well," Miller said. "People can get nervous about technology and what that's going to do to the workforce. But at McDonald's, they knew that and did not want to take jobs away."

-