Automation: Robots in Real Life

Part I, “Automation Armageddon: a Legitimate Worry?” reviewed the history of automation, focused on projections of gloom-and-doom.

“It smells like death,” is how a friend of mine described a nearby chain grocery store. He tends to exaggerate and visiting France admittedly brings about strong feelings of passion. Anyway, the only reason we go there is for things like foil or plastic bags that aren’t available at any of the smaller stores.

Before getting to why that matters – and, yes, it does matter – first a tasty digression.

I live in a French village. To the French, high-quality food is a vital component to good life.

My daughter counts eight independent bakeries on the short drive between home and school. Most are owned by a couple of people. Counting high-quality bakeries embedded in grocery stores would add a few more. Going out of our way more than a minute or two would more than double that number.

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Typical Bakery: Bread is cooked at least twice daily

Despite so many, the bakeries seem to do well. In the half-decade I’ve been here, three new ones opened and none of the old ones closed. They all seem to be busy.

Bakeries are normally owner operated. The busiest might employ a few people but many are mom-and-pop operations with him baking and her selling.

To remain economically viable, they rely on a dance of people and robots.

Flour arrives in sacks with high-quality grains milled by machines.

People measure ingredients, with each bakery using slightly different recipes.

A human-fed robot mixes and kneads the ingredients into the dough.

Some kind of machine churns the lumps of dough into baguettes.
Baguette Forming Machine: This would make a good animated GIF

The baker places the formed baguettes onto baking trays then puts them in the oven.

Big ovens maintain a steady temperature while timers keep track of how long various loaves of bread have been baking. Despite the sensors, bakers make the final decision when to pull the loaves out, with some preferring a bien cuit more cooked flavor and others a softer crust.

Finally, a person uses a robot in the form of a cash register to ring up transactions and processes payments, either by cash or card.

Nobody — not the owners, workers, or customers — think twice about any of this. I doubt most people realize how much automation technology is involved or even that much of the equipment is automation tech.

There would be no improvement in quality mixing and kneading the dough by hand. There would, however, be an enormous increase in cost.

The baguette forming machines churn out exactly what a person would do by hand, only faster and at a far lower cost.

We take the thermostatically controlled ovens for granted. However, for anybody who has tried to cook over wood controlling heat via air and fuel, thermostatically controlled ovens are clearly automation technology.

Is the cash register really a robot? James Ritty, who invented it, didn’t think so; he sold the patent for cheap. The person who bought the patent built it into NCR, a seminal company laying the groundwork of the modern computer revolution.

Would these bakeries be financially viable if forced to do all this by hand? Probably not. They’d be forced to produce less output at higher cost; many would likely fail. Bread would cost more leaving less money for other purchases. Fewer jobs, less consumer spending power, and hungry bellies to boot; that doesn’t sound like good public policy.

Getting back to the grocery store my friend thinks smells like death; just a few weeks ago they started using robots in a new and, to many, not especially welcome way.

As any tourist knows, most stores in France are closed on Sunday afternoons, including and especially grocery stores. That’s part of French labor law: grocery stores must close Sunday afternoons.

Except that the chain grocery store near me announced they are opening Sunday afternoon. How? Robots, and sleight-of-hand. Grocers may not work on Sunday afternoons but guards are allowed.

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Not my store but similar.
Dimanche means Sunday. Aprés-midi means afternoon.

I stopped in to get a feel for how the system works. Instead of grocers, the store uses security guards and self-checkout kiosks.

When you step inside, a guard reminds you there are no grocers. Nobody restocks the shelves but, presumably for half a day, it doesn’t matter. On Sunday afternoons, in place of a bored-looking person wearing a store uniform and overseeing the robo-checkout kiosks sits a bored-looking person wearing a security guard uniform doing the same. There are no human-assisted checkout lanes open but this store seldom has more than one operating anyway.

I have no idea how long the French government will allow this loophole to continue. I thought it might attract yellow vest protestors or at least a cranky store worker – maybe a few locals annoyed at an ancient tradition being buried – but there was nobody complaining. There were handly any customers, either.

The use of robots to sidestep labor law and replace people, in one of the most labor-friendly countries in the world, produced a big yawn.

Paul Krugman and Matt Stoller argue convincingly that it’s the bosses, not the robots, that crush the spirits and souls of workers. Krugman calls it “automation obsession” and Stoller points out predictions of robo-Armageddon have existed for decades. The well over 100+ examples I have of major automation-tech ultimately led to more jobs, not fewer.

Jerry Yang envisions some type of forthcoming automation-induced dystopia. Zuck and the tech-bros argue for a forthcoming Star Trek style robo-utopia.

My guess is we’re heading for something in-between, a place where artisanal bakers use locally grown wheat, made affordable thanks to machine milling. Where small family-owned bakeries rely on automation tech to do the undifferentiated grunt-work. The robots in my future are more likely to look more like cash registers and less like Terminators.

It’s an admittedly blander vision of the future; neither utopian nor dystopian, at least not one fueled by automation tech. However, it’s a vision supported by the historic adoption of automation technology.

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