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THE END OF RETAIL AS WE KNOW IT? SERVICE ROBOTS WILL GREET YOU THIS HOLIDAY SEASON

If you happen to be visiting the Orchard Supply Hardware Store in San Jose, CA, at the center of Silicon Valley anytime soon, you’ll be stepping into the future of retail. Meet OSHBot, the shopping assistant of the future , OSHBot is a human-sized, multi-lingual robot that will be rolling the aisles of Orchard Supply Hardware until the holidays, helping customers find what they need.  Announced a couple weeks ago, it is the result of a collaborative effort between Lowe’s Innovation Labs (as in the Lowe’s Home Improvement retail chain) and Fellow Robots, a technology company spin off from SU Labs at Singularity University.

Upon entering the store, OSHBot greets the customer and asks if they need help finding anything. It is equipped with a 3D sensing camera that identifies the object and in no time the device wheels itself through the aisles leading the pleasantly surprised customer to their target.

Started earlier this year, OSHBot represents some of the latest advances in emerging technology – artificial intelligence, sensors, wireless networking, voice recognition, and design prototyping.

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As Fellow Robots states, OSHBot is all about “reimagining retail” by using smart retail robots to dramatically improve the customer experience. “This is something that could change retail in a meaningful way,” said Kyle Nel, the executive director of Lowe’s Innovation Labs. You don’t have to wander around just to find out we don’t have it, or even worse, buy it and bring it home and realize that’s not the thing,” Nel said. If an object is in the store, OSHBot will know exactly where it is.

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Lowe’s and Fellow Robots are onto something big! For years now technologist and other interested observers have been speculating when robots might go mainstream. Back at the beginning of 2007, Bill Gates famously declared robots as the “next big thing” and that the industry was at the same place as the PC market in the late 1970s – just ready to take off! Well, we’ve been waiting for a while now. But the last 7 years have been pivotal. We’ve seen the introduction of the smartphone and the beginning of the mobile revolution. Along with cloud technologies and social and collaboration breakthroughs – witness the transformations in how we live, the way we do business, and how we interact with others. As a result, robotics are now at an inflection point where the technology has caught up with the vision.

OSHBot represents the exciting new possibilities, opportunities, and disruptions happening in the consumer shopping experience. The future of retail robotics is here and it’s rolling the aisles at your local Orchard Supply Hardware store.

But OSHBot is just the tip of the iceberg of what’s possible in retail. Automation is already on its way to disrupting the whole supply chain process. We’ve seen it for years in manufacturing, but now it’s apparent in warehousing and distribution. Take, for example, Kiva Systems, the Massachusetts-based warehouse robotics firm, which Amazon acquired in 2012 to automate the management of merchandise within its huge fulfillment centers (Gartner says, in fact, that warehouse robotics was a $4 billion market in 2013).  And if Amazon gets FAA approval for its drone delivery service, those goods will be on your front door step in less than 30 minutes. Will 2015 be the year that Prime Air takes off?

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We’re at the dawn of the smart machine era. As Gartner points out, “Prototype autonomous vehicles, advanced robots, virtual personal assistants and smart advisors already exist and will evolve rapidly, ushering in a new age of machine helpers. The smart machine era will be the most disruptive in the history of IT.” Of course, speculation is rife about what this means for the future of jobs. One study suggests that nearly half of U.S. jobs may be automated in the next 20 years.

As exciting and visionary as it seems, OSHBot certainly raises many complex issues about the future of work. What happens when the possibility of being outsourced by a robot becomes a real and present threat? Consider the kinds of higher order levels of education necessary to compete in the digital workforce of 2020. How are schools and universities preparing for these challenges? And what are current CEOs and CIOs doing to get their organizations ready for the dramatic changes ahead? Answers to these questions will determine how we adjust and adapt to a future life with robots like OSHBot by our side and in our homes, offices, and places of work. Ready or not, the future is here!

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