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Lowe's replacing (some) humans with robots

If you plan to shop at Lowe’s (LOW) Orchard Supply Hardware store in San Jose, Calif. next month, you might find your sales associate replaced by a 5-foot-tall talking robot.

These robotic shopping assistants, or OSHbots, will be the first of their kind in the country. They will greet customers, ask them if they need help and show them through the store to the customers' desired products. The robot will also feature screens on its front and back which will display ads for products as well as allow customers the option to videoconference with an in-store sales associate.

Yahoo Finance Editor-in-Chief Aaron Task said it is “amazing” technology, but also points out the implications of adding OSHbots to stores. “The downside is you don’t need a human begin on the floor of your store now if you can do this…” and while there will still be a person in the store assisting via video conference, this means “one human being with a job but there are a lot of human beings who used to be on the floor and now don’t have jobs.”

The robot was created through a partnership with Lowe’s and Fellow Robots. Kyle Nel, the Executive Director of Lowe’s Innovation Labs tells the Wall Street Journal the robots will bring some of the benefits of the e-commerce experience into a physical store.

In its next phase, the robot could have the ability to scan a particular part presented by the customer, say, a nail or a bolt, and actually generate it using a 3D printer built into the body of the robot itself.

This isn’t the plot of a new science-fiction movie, but Task says “we are getting closer and closer to an era where artificial intelligence robots are interacting with us and are going to start to understand things – not as well as a human being… but they can do things a lot better than they used to be able to.”

The true test for businesses will be how customers respond to being helped by a robot, and how it impacts the bottom line, says Task. “If you’re an employer and you look at this OSHbot, which apparently costs $50,000, you're saying a minimum-wage worker plus benefits is maybe going to cost me $25,000 to $30,000-a-year, but this robot is never going to take a sick day, is never going to want to go on vacation…”

At launch the Lowe’s Orchard Supply store will have only two robots in use, but this could be a harbinger of more businesses making use of artificial intelligence technology down the line.

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