retail news in context, analysis with attitude

Last week, MNB featured a story about how a company was using robots to replace thousand of employees in China (though it claimed to be only reassigning them), and how this reflects a potential labor revolution.

You can read the story here.

MNB reader Ernie Monschein responded:

Interesting take on the march of robotics, but it poses a critical question: if robotics and artificial intelligence continues to advance to it's logical conclusion, what do we do with all of the excess workers? You don't really think there are enough R&D jobs for all of those low skilled workers? So, do we expand the social safety net, create make work jobs? What do we do with them? People won't starve quietly.

I am not a Luddite, but shouldn't we be considering the unintended consequences of these advances? This discussion is especially relevant during a time when, as a society, we are debating the role of government in employment and the economic safety net. Food for thought.


The original story noted that "robotics are often held up as a solution to various problems, such as calls in the US for a higher minimum wage. Former McDonald's CEO Ed Rensi recently was quoted as saying that an increase in the minimum wage could force the fast feeder to move in this direction, saying that 'it's cheaper to buy a $35,000 robotic arm than it is to hire an employee who is inefficient, making $15 an hour bagging French fries'."

I commented, in part:

I suspect that it also is cheaper to buy a $35,000 robotic arm than it is to pay an "inefficient" person $12 an hour, or $10 an hour, or $8 an hour. I also think it could be argued that a better motivated and invested workforce might be more efficient, and actually could be good for business; it might come as a surprise to the folks at McDonald's, but an invested workforce actually can be a differential advantage. For the moment, it is more efficient for them to hold out robotics as a kind of "bogeyman" that allows them to justify paying people lower wages. (Robotics will seem preferable only up until the point where they develop a robot who can replace highly paid but inefficient human CEOs ... and then, suddenly, attitudes will change.)

This prompted one MNB user to write:

KC, I think you are simply delusional to argue the fact that robots and the minimum wage does effect the employment rate. A robot won’t complain, shows up for work every day, will not demand to use the bathroom of their choice, will treat everyone regardless of their race the same and does not need a “safe room” to decompress after a long day.

You start to lose credibility when you try to prove the obvious wrong.


First of all, I think you meant "doesn't affect the employment rate," not "does effect the employment rate."

Second, I don't think that's what I was arguing. I believe what I was saying is that a better motivated and invested workforce can be a great boon to how productive a business can be.

Third, your email implies that that employees are out of line if they complain, demand to use the bathroom of their choice, or need to decompress after a long day.

I'm pretty sure I don;t want to work for you. But that's okay, because I know you wouldn't want to hire me.

Finally, from an MNB reader:

I made a bet with a friend a few months ago about which would come first : the zombie apocalypse or robot apocalypse.....

Having watched too many episodes of "The Walking Dead," I said zombies. After reading your article, I think I owe my buddy $100.


I would've bet against you. Zombies don't exist. Robots do.
KC's View: