As Labor Shortages Continue, Could Robots Provide An Answer?

Dec. 3, 2021, 10 a.m. ·

Giada, officially a Servi robot from Bear Robotics, with three flat levels. There is a plate with a sandwich and french fries on the top level. A table and chairs are in the background.
Giada, officially a Servi robot from Bear Robotics, can deliver food to customers based on table number and is equipped with sensors to allow it to avoid collisions. (Photo by William Padmore, Nebraska Public Media News)

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Now, more than ever, robots are making their way into people’s lives and not just in urban coastal cities like New York City and Los Angeles. Right here in Nebraska, there are robots that can bus tables, check inventory and more. As labor shortages continue and robots become more advanced, are we at the beginning of a robotic revolution?

In the town of Aurora, Nebraska, right off Highway 34 and 11th Street and down a small, winding gravel road, sits Jojo’s Gelato and Grill.

Once inside, there’s one employee that draws a little more attention than the others: a child-sized robot, zipping from table to table with plates of food.

Jim Danhauer is the owner of Jojo’s and of the robot "Giada." It's Servi robot which is a creation of Bear Robotics in Redwood, California. Giada resembles a moving tower of three, weight-sensitive platforms that can be programmed to deliver food to tables based on the table number. According to the Bear Robotics’ website, the robot even has sensors that allow it to navigate tight spaces and avoid collisions.

Jojo's Gelato and Grill owner Jim Danhauer standing near the counter with a Pepsi machine behind him.
Jim Danhauer, owner of Jojo's Gelato and Grill at the front counter of the restaurant. ( Photo by William Padmore, Nebraska Public Media News)

Danhauer said he first saw Giada at a trade show in San Antonio, Texas, during the height of the pandemic.

"They had two of them there and we decided, you know what? It's so hard for us to find help right now…we decided, well, let's give it a shot,” he said.

Aurora, a town of fewer than 5,000 people, might be the last place some would expect to find a state-of-the-art serving robot, but Danhaure says it’s been a good investment.

“Actually, I’ve had three people inquire about the robot already because they’re in the same situation I’m in,” Danhauer said. “They can’t get people to come in and fill out an application.”

Danhauer said Giada can do the work of two people.

As robotic technology becomes more advanced every year and can perform more mundane tasks, could we be on the edge of an explosion of robotic servers like Giada? Could the technology even end up replacing human workers altogether?

One report from Oxford Economics predicts worldwide, 20 million manufacturing jobs could be replaced by robots by 2030.

While automation in manufacturing has been well documented, could we now be seeing a new wave of displacement in traditionally mundane and repetitive jobs in other industries?

In an email, Eric Thompson, a professor of economics at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, said, while he hasn’t studied robots in the workplace, he seemed open to the idea as a potential way of dealing with scarce labor.

And Giada isn’t the only new robot on the scene. Many Hy-Vee shoppers may have noticed a silent but polite robot roaming the isles, complete with googly eyes and a nametag.

Tally a stock robot with a monitor and HyVee nametag in a grocery store aisle.
A Tally bot roams the aisles of a Lincoln Hy-Vee. (Photo by William Padmore, Nebraska Public Media News)

Brad Bogolea is CEO of Simbe Robotics, producers of the inventory-scanning robot aptly named "Tally."

“Tally operates in the stores, it very simply just goes up and down the store aisles, staying out of customers’ way, and it's capturing imagery of just the store shelves,” Bogolea said,. “Then, we use computer vision to analyze those photos to see, you know, is product properly stocked? Is it in the right place?”

And that's job that would normally be the task of a human employee. Simbe is working with Hy-Vee in a pilot program testing Tally’s usefulness

For his part, Bogolea said Tally wasn’t designed to replace human workers but to make their jobs easier.

“What tally is really focused on is, you know, just hoping to sort of instrument and find those problems so the store teams can really focus on, you know, improving that overall experience,” Bogolea said.

Bogolea acknowledges, while he can see more stores using technology like Tally, he believes robots could actually increase the number of jobs in stores or at least use existing labor more efficiently.

If a robot could theoretically do every task a human worker could, though, could they replace us? What about in interaction-heavy environments like restaurants and retail stores? Maybe not, according to Justin Bradley, a professor of computer science at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

Brad Bogolea Headshot
A heashot of Brad Bogolea, CEO of Simbe Robotics (Photo Courtesy of Simbe Robotics)

“So it's one thing to build a robot that does a thing, and we can we can do that relatively well,” Bradley said. “It's quite another thing to build a robot that does a thing in a context that is complex, complicated, and interacts with unknown beings, like humans…(that is a) significantly more challenging problem and I think that's what still really needs to be solved before there's, the replacement of workers really.”

Bradley said it is inevitable that some displacement will happen as a result of evolving technologies. He said autonomous cars would be one example. That doesn’t mean workers won’t be transferred to other roles within industries. Besides, even if the perfect robot existed, Bradley said there are still ethical values to consider.

“Imagine we can do this, (that) I can build the safety, I can make the guarantees that it will behave in a correct manner," he said. "Then, the question is, 'Well, should we?' Well, I don't know.”

Back at Jojo’s Gelato in Aurora, shift supervisor Amanda Palmer has a simpler explanation as to why she’s not afraid of being replaced by a Giada 2.0 anytime soon.

“My work ethic speaks volumes, so robots are not gonna replace me,” she said.