The Everyday Reality of Service Robots

From a Wall Street Journal story by Peter Funt headlined “The New Everyday Reality of Service Robots”

While visiting a hospital patient, I bumped into—almost literally—a hard worker named Moxi. Standing just a bit over 4 feet tall, with twinkling eyes, she had the mundane task of delivering meds and lab samples. Patients praised her, but among the staff at Community Hospital of the Monterey Peninsula in California, she was scorned.

Moxi was manufactured by Diligent Robotics, one of several firms that responded quickly to the pandemic and is now part of an industry-wide shakeout to determine the roles service robots will play in a post-Covid world. A few days before I met Moxi, my daughter dined at a Beaverton, Ore., restaurant called Top Burmese Bistro Royale, which opened during the pandemic. Her food was delivered to the table by a robot named Jesper, a product of Xcuseme Tech in Portland.

Robots have been used for years in factories and warehouses—at firms such as Boeing, where they help build planes, and Amazon, whose army of robots sorts packages. Many of these devices are just delivery tugs or mechanical arms programmed to handle repetitive tasks. The pandemic accelerated demand for a different class of machines—some with digital “faces” and speech capability—in retail and service sectors, where they perform with, or in close proximity to, employees and customers.

Every nurse I interviewed was negative, to some degree, about Moxi. The major concern was that it wasted money that could be used for hiring people and paying them more. Patients, on the other hand, were amused and moderately entertained by seeing a robot gliding down the halls. Hospital administrators seemed generally enthusiastic, emphasizing that Moxi’s mission is to handle menial tasks, leaving nurses more time to focus on actual patient care.

Diligent, based in Austin, Texas, was developing hospital robots for two years before the pandemic but had none in the field. Within months, that changed. “We were in a great position to have a product that was ready to get out into the market and really help frontline care teams by distributing PPE [personal protective equipment],” CEO Andrea Thomaz told me. “We don’t see Moxi robots being used for that particular workflow anymore. But there are all kinds of other operational efficiencies that can be gained with automation. A robot can carry things around the hospital that would normally be hand carried, and that has a timeless application.”

The Oregon restaurant, where food is delivered by Jesper and three other robots, is owned by Kalvin Myint, a former software engineer at Nike. Seeking ways to operate safely during the pandemic, he bought a service robot from Pudu Robotics in China, which proved so successful that Myint became a distributor for the company, modifying imported units for the U.S. market.

I asked how things have changed now that the pandemic has cooled. “It has definitely grown from a social distancing tool,” he explained. “We use robots to assist our servers and busing staff because they can carry loads up to 100 pounds. I think it’s getting more into a practicality than a novelty at this point.”

What about jobs? “We can’t definitely say that robots won’t replace people, but I think it’s quite far away. We look at robots right now as a tool. We used to wash the dishes by hand; now we use machines for that. It’s the same thing.”

Clearly, there is a lot of posturing and rationalizing about robots. It’s naive to say that machines designed to do things previously handled by humans won’t eliminate some jobs. A study conducted in 2020 by researchers at MIT and Boston University found that for every robot added per 1,000 workers in the U.S., wages decline by 0.42% and the employment-to-population ratio goes down by 0.2%.

But it’s equally shortsighted to suggest that many aspects of life and commerce can’t be improved by the new technology. Robotics firms must walk a fine line between convincing employees that jobs won’t be lost and selling employers on the notion that robots can save money in some settings by reducing staff.

Most service robots are leased rather than sold. Thomaz declined to discuss pricing for Diligent’s hospital robots, but industry sources placed it at about $2,000 a month. Myint said that the average rate for his restaurant models is $1,500 a month.

Among the challenges for robotics firms is deciding how many human features their machines should mimic. Moxi, for example, has LED “eyes” and enough “Star Wars”-type style that patients pose with it in pictures. The staff at one hospital even dressed it in a costume for a holiday party. Pudu’s restaurant robots are kept busy singing happy birthday to patrons.

While human qualities make robots more pleasant to have around, they might also prompt concerns from staffers, at least in the short term. Few nurses would fear that a Xerox machine or pneumatic tube would take their jobs, but a robot with a name could be perceived as a threat.

Eric Dahlin, a sociology professor at Brigham Young University, commissioned a robotics survey by Qualtrics at the height of the pandemic in 2021. Among 1,959 respondents in a nationally representative sample, nearly 14% said they had lost their job to a robot. As surprisingly high as that number was, Dahlin found that the perceived impact on jobs was even greater. He notes that, “Respondents’ perceptions are exaggerated compared with (and no doubt influenced by) the attention-grabbing headlines predicting a dire future of employment.”

Pudu Robotics says it has placed more than 53,000 service robots in some 60 countries, in restaurants, hotels, hospitals and retail stores. In the U.S., most of them go under the name Bella. Writing in “Nation’s Restaurant News,” Pudu’s U.S. manager, Robin Zheng, offered a cautionary note to restaurateurs: “Make sure employees know the bot is there to support them, not replace them.” He added, “Robots can be a marketing tactic for many restaurants, as some diners will seek out this novel dining experience. However, for more particular customers expecting a traditional service, robots can seem like the end of a golden age of dining.”

We are clearly entering a golden age of robotics and AI. In laboratories such as Google’s DeepMind facility in London, robots aren’t just playing soccer and chess—they are teaching themselves winning moves. At Honda, Asimo, a humanoid device that can run and climb stairs, is being used by researchers to determine how robots and humans can best interact. Sophia, the well-publicized speaking robot built by Hanson Robotics (it sang a duet with Jimmy Fallon on TV) is being similarly tested, as is Hanson’s Grace model, specifically designed to interact with hospital patients.

Robots in the workplace should be seen in the same way that Californians anticipate earthquakes: It’s not “if” but “when”—and of what magnitude. The pandemic didn’t create entirely new markets for robots so much as it allowed robotics firms to expand in the service sector more rapidly than before.

Myint’s original robot, Milo, who performed so well during the pandemic, now stands motionless at the restaurant door “greeting” patrons. “Three years is a long time in the technology world,” he notes. “Milo is obsolete, so he no longer delivers food.” If humans in service industries have fears about the future, they should look at Milo, the hard worker who lost his job—to another robot.

Peter Funt is a journalist and TV host. His new book is “Playing POTUS: The Power of America’s ‘Acting Presidents.’”

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