Grocery robots

Some time early this year — I don’t recall the circumstances, or why — Dawn and I decided to give Wal*Mart’s grocery service a try. You go online and fill your shopping cart, give them a credit- or debit-card, then arrive at the store at your appointment time and somebody puts the groceries in your car’s trunk. We’ve used the service ever since. It’s convenient, trustworthy, we’ve gotten to know and like the online shopping staff — who are well-trained, and mostly young — and we avoid the chaos of the Wal*Mart parking lot.

Well … dang. Those ambitious and likable kids, who probably thought they had caught a wave and were on the leading edge of retail, might soon be replaced by robots.

Walmart is testing a new robotics system that picks customers’ grocery orders. The retailer this morning announced it has partnered with Alert Innovation to deploy Alphabot, a system designed for Walmart, in its Salem, New Hampshire superstore. The automated technology will be installed in a 20,000-square foot extension connected to the store, which will also serve as the dedicated grocery pick-up point with drive-thru lanes for customers.

There’s no stopping progress, et cetera, et cetera, and I’ll probably use the service if it ever reaches us, but I have to admit I have some misgivings.

We are not ready for the society that is coming. Increasingly, work is being replaced by machines, and that trend is going to continue. This has an upside — fewer worker injuries, fewer worker errors. But … what is going to become of all those people for whom there are no jobs? In a world where perhaps 100-million (to pick a number) people are needed to design, build, and maintain the machines, what does everybody else do? This calls for some flavor of collectivism in order to prevent mass starvation, and destruction of the machines, but how are we to prepare for that day when the Deplorable One-third want to return us to the Bronze Age?

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