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Can Humans Compete with Machines in the Retail World?

Can Humans Compete with Machines in the Retail World?


By Dr. William Oliver Hedgepeth
Faculty Member, Transportation and Logistics Management, American Public University

For many years, one of the most popular food chains in New York City was the Automat. With a handful of nickels, you purchased your food choices from a wall of glass windows. You put the proper number of nickels into the accompanying slot and twisted the knob.

The window would open so you could put the food item on your tray. It was fast food before the term was invented.

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The only visible workers were the cashiers who changed your paper money into a fistful of nickels and the women who cleared the tables. Unseen workers behind the wall refilled the empty windows.

Sadly, the Automats are all gone now. But what if a fast-food restaurant were to replace all its workers with smart machines today? Would the facility still need at least one human worker on the premises? If so, what job would that person have?

McDonald’s Leads the Wave of Self-Ordering Machines

More than 9,000 McDonald’s restaurants now are equipped with self-ordering kiosks. The idea is to use digital technology as part of a corporate-wide renovating effort. The drive toward online ordering reflects the company’s analysis that customers are using touchscreen technology to make all kinds of purchases. The advent of the kiosks means having to hire fewer workers.

In fact, corporate researchers found data indicating that McDonald’s customers spend more money when they order by touch screen because they can see other items for sale.

These machines, however, accept only credit or debit cards for the purchases. They do not accept cash payments (no nickels, please). Customers still need to deal with a human at a cash register to make purchases with cash.

McDonald’s Kiosks in the US Cover about 65% of Its Restaurants

Currently, about 9,000 McDonald’s in the U.S. use these kiosks, or about 65% of the approximately 14,000 restaurants in the chain. The cost of implementing a kiosk-based McDonald’s runs around $750,000. Each franchise has to bear that cost, not the restaurants that McDonald’s owns.

One of the benefits of this digital technology is there won’t be any more incorrect orders as happens with human employees, especially with newly hired workers.

On the down side, the kiosks mean that many young workers may never get hired at McDonald’s.

McDonald’s Is Purchasing Companies that Develop Artificial Intelligence Applications

McDonald’s is also purchasing companies that develop artificial intelligence (AI) applications with a focus on machine-learning technology. The AI department is called McD Tech Labs and is part of McDonald’s Global Technology focus.

The company is serious about learning how consumers think and what they might purchase, as well as their assessment of the food quality. With McDonald’s AI, the company can remember what you ordered, what you looked and sounded like. It also remembers your car and license number, what the weather was like and the time of day you made your purchase.

The machines try to do what you, as a customer or McDonald’s employee, might do in a face-to-face encounter: read your body language and interpret nonverbal and verbal cues from your speech. The goal of the kiosks and the machine-learning AI technology is to determine how to entice customers to buy more and spend more.

Robots Now Becoming Home Appraisers

Another field that is fast becoming a target for AI and machine-learning technology is the real estate market.

Drone robots are replacing licensed home appraisers. Financial institutions and banks save money by not having to use licensed humans to appraise property for sale and tax purposes.

These robotic home appraiser drones are using AI computer software to measure the size of a home and property and to spot good and bad features for the seller and buyer. Also, a drone appraisal may not be as costly or time-consuming as assessments done by a human.

The question is can all that training and knowledge be programmed into machine learning software attached to a drone?

Amazon Mixes Robots and Human Workers to Ship Packages to Customers

Amazon wants to deliver its products to a customer’s door in record time. So Amazon is increasing its use of robots to work beside human employees to pick items off warehouse shelves and place customer-ordered items into a transportation pod for shipment.

Robots are working alongside humans in those warehouses placing orders in boxes to be shipped to their final destination. The robots, however, do not tire or need a supervisor to push them to work faster.

Combining machines and workers to complete tasks once performed solely by humans has always been a human versus technology issue and a difficult dilemma for employers and unions. The question of replacing human labor with robots or drones is not an easy one to answer. This human-machine dynamic going on all around us now has even entered the political and legal arenas.

About the Author

Dr. Oliver Hedgepeth is a full-time professor at American Public University (APU). He was program director of three academic programs: Reverse Logistics Management, Transportation and Logistics Management and Government Contracting. He was Chair of the Logistics Department at the University of Alaska Anchorage. Dr. Hedgepeth was the founding Director of the Army’s Artificial Intelligence Center for Logistics from 1985 to 1990, Fort Lee, Virginia.



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