August 8, 2017

Let’s not kid ourselves here, robots already run most of our world. We’ll be their butlers soon enough.

-Eric Stoltz

Judging by the way my Dell laptop has been working the past couple days (super inefficiently), I don’t think the robots will be taking over anytime soon….

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Steve the Robot

Humans have always been fascinated by robots and artificial intelligence. I mean, there’s R2-D2, Wall-E, the Terminator, and our fellas the Mars rovers.

You would think with technology advancing so fast we’d get used to robots doing the rather mundane jobs like being a security guard. Very, very, very wrong.

My friend John sent me a link to an NPR article about Steve the Knightscope robot who works in Washington, D.C. Steve would patrol the grounds near the Georgetown waterfront, handing out citations or tickets, and making sure everything was okay.

Unfortunately, the robot met its demise when, according to Forbes, Steve missed a step and fell down into its rival: a water fountain. Forbes and NPR both agree it was not foul play. They disagree on the motive. Forbes claims it was sensory issues. NPR had much more fun, saying Steve began questioning its existence and saw the water fountain as a comforting way to end things.

I was much more entertained reading the NPR story and the heart strings really got pulled as Scott Simon, the writer, toyed with the idea of Steve, and robots in general, genuinely feel the void of true emotion as they saw humans experience love, happiness and purpose. That’s not to say the Forbes article, written by Kalev Leetaru, was not entertaining. It provided a realistic possible situation that could have happened to Steve (what is realistic these days?), before going into the question of robotic rights. Yes, you read that correctly: robots have rights.

A good point Leetaru brought up is the scenario of a security guard robot patrolling the streets filled with late-night spots and bars. The bars close and the drunkards fill the streets causing chaos. The security robot films the illegal acts such as vandalism as evidence, or tries to calm the drunkard down. Drunkard doesn’t like the robot and gives it a punch, or worse: destroys the thing. Can the robot’s buddies get together and ask for criminal charges against the drunkard? Would the manufacturer or company who hired the robot provide the necessary tools and resources to fix him (or her? it?) up? Do they get paid to be guards and punching bags? Would they have the right to fight back? What are their rights?? Or if one of their functions fail because the manufacturer was negligent, could they sue their creator? What if they go Frankenstein on their creators? What if they do process human emotion and feel it but feel the negative emotions and try to take over? Would they get the right to vote?

I know all this sounds kind of ridiculous, but I find comfort I am not the only one asking these questions. Considering we are surrounded by new pieces of smarter tech every day, academics, government officials and commercial groups are questioning the same thing. One has to wonder: are robots people too?

Read the full articles here: “The Sad Drowning Of Steve The Robot And The Future Of Robotic Rights” and “I Sink, Therefore I Am: This Robot Wasn’t Programmed For Existential Angst

Amazon to buy WFM for Billions

My phone lights up, spitting out various news sources all saying iterations of the same thing. I stare at it blankly. I couldn’t believe it: Amazon, the online giant, bought Whole Foods Market, the hippie grocery stored turned luxury health nut food store, for $13.7 billion. You read that right. Billion.

Now, I have a soft spot for WFM. I’ve lived in Austin for almost 11 years. WFM is the Austin thing, so the loyalty ran extra deep since I was an Austinite working at an Austin staple during the college days (corn is great 4078! #cashierlife).  I was there when the grand news of WFM’s financial success in late 2013 spread throughout the land. I was there when they came out with their first commercial. I was there when the fancy H-E-B location came along and began to make my WFM store a ghost town(ish). I was there when Trader Joe’s came into Austin and slight pangs of worry hit every manager’s face. I was there when the prison labor controversy was running around causing questions. I was there when they put more fruit inside their Berry Chantilly cake (it’s a disappointing three berries and 99% cream now).  I befriended many fellas from various backgrounds–including the friendliest porter you ever met and the wackiest guests–even met celebrities (Jesse James was kind enough to donate $25 to one of our donation drives one year and Meatloaf is super nice despite his large size). Days spent among friends during the lunch break exchanging gifts of books, food and music were the best. I’ve seen the stock plunge and rise and repeat, staying in the $30 range.

Bakery @ WFM Gateway, ATX

I was gone by the time their financials were not rising, their overprice asparagus water caused uproar, the closing of different extra aspects of the company is other regions, the stepping down of co-CEO Walter Robb in November 2016, and the opening of 365, the “lower-priced” store that follows a Trader Joe’s format.

I’ll be honest, I don’t shop there as often as I do now. You can’t go back when you had a 20% discount card for two and a half years. I still follow the news though. I cheer when they hit a high point and feel a slight pain of sadness when they lose (except for the asparagus water incident. That was just a “raise an eyebrow and face palm” moment).

WFM Original Store
wholefoodsmarket.com
I do find the timing a little funny. Texas Monthly just came out with an article called “The Shelf Life of John Mackey“. John Mackey, who is regarded as the “animal spirit” of the company (Robb was the business brains), was interviewed by Tom Foster. Mackey pretty much lashed out at NY hedge fund Jana Partners for trying to buy them out without really telling Mackey. He was starting his book tour for The Whole Foods Diet, his second book, so he considered the move “intentional”. The article is well-thought out and details everything from WFM’s inception to the present day conundrum. Foster even plays out what I call the WFM contradiction: as it got bigger, it became more corporate, less healthy and the core values became more….confusing…Was it a hippie store? Was it a rich people store? Was it a rich hippie store? I’ve seen my fair share of both groups at the store I worked at, so honestly I can’t really tell. I just saw happy folks buying kale salad and kombucha. No need for labels.

Anyway, Amazon. Good on you for allowing WFM to operate under their name. Also, good on your for raising the stock price from $33.06 at 9:30 AM on June 16, 2017 to $42.00 twenty minutes later (I knew I should have bought WFM stock three months ago when it was $29). I hope you can keep the spirit of WFM alive and well. As much as I don’t want the online robots to take over and ruin any chance I have at working at Vogue (print is not dead people!) or open my coffeeshop/bookstore, I guess it’s better than having WFM disappear altogether.

(Read the articles here, here, and here, or just Google)