I Heart SCV
The Robots are Here
May, 2018 - Issue #164
A chorus of sneezes heralds the arrival of spring in Santa Clarita. Pollen is the price we pay for having beautiful flowers to look at. And I, for one, am more than willing to take that deal, because I'm on team carbon-based biological life forms. I make this rather unusual statement because Santa Clarita is rapidly moving towards a more silicon-based lifestyle. It's robots, robots everywhere. The cold, unfeeling, inhuman creations are spreading through the valley, and alarmingly, we're welcoming them with open arms.
"But he might STILL COME to Walmart - on unemployment, where else can he afford to shop?"

If you want to feel tinges of techno-paranoia, go to Walmart. Until recently, they had the decency to keep robots on the manufacturing lines and out of sight of shoppers. But now, a robot is milling among customers at Santa Clarita's supercenter. The Bossa Nova Robotics produced robot is boxy, gray, over six feet tall and its purpose in life is imaging and scanning items to prioritize stocking needs. Apparently, it can scan an entire aisle in a couple of minutes. Similar robots are in other Walmart stores in Burbank, Palmdale and Lancaster as well. Their cameras and sensors allow them to detect people and other pesky obstacles so they won't run you over while they're taking your jobs.

Of course, Walmart isn't suggesting that humans are entirely obsolete. In an interview with The Signal, a spokesperson said, "We will always need great people in our stores." As some jobs are automated, new jobs will open up. Unfortunately, it's rather unlikely that the guy who used to do inventory is going to be a great fit for a new job opening in robotics engineering. But he might still come to Walmart - on unemployment, where else can he afford to shop?

Santa Clarita is full of over-priced, quasi-artisanal hamburger places. Their supposed charm is rooted in the idea that they carefully hand-craft your food, which is why your order costs twice what it would at McDonald's. CaliBurger, an anticipated arrival in Santa Clarita, is taking a different approach. They're in the business of burgers, but their culture is all about automation. This is the chain that made national headlines for using a robot named "Flippy" to flip burger patties at its Pasadena store. A commercial on their website shows a female employee smiling inanely at the unaware bot, her job now restricted to placing toppings on burgers that Flippy cooks and sets upon open face buns. You'll notice that Flippy puts the burger patties ever so slightly off center, just in case it wasn't already irksome enough.

But Flippy is neither the beginning nor the end. CaliBurger has experimented with kiosks and letting you pay via facial recognition, because who wouldn't want to store a scan of their face and credit card information in a database to get a burger? And CEO John Miller has spoken of fully-automated kitchens in the future. How high-tech will the SCV location become? We'll see.

A group of six girls, four of whom attend Santa Clarita high schools, have been competing in the FIRST ("For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology") Tech Challenge robotics competition. They are team "Heat it up and Keep it cool." While the name isn't so great, their robotics skills are top notch. The bot they've designed and built accomplishes tasks like picking up cubes and moving through complex environments. It's all for entering FIRST competitions, the rules of which are bewilderingly dense. The SCV team has been winning from the local to super-regional levels, earning the coveted "Inspire" award for doing an all-around inspirational job of engineering, teaching and competing.

Interestingly, the 501(c)3 organization FIRST demands remarkably-high entrance fees for its robotics competitions and it has trademarked phrases like "Gracious Professionalism" and "Coopertition" as it lays out philosophies that verge on techno-cultish. However, it seems like the Santa Clarita team is staying grounded, as all of its members dedicate a lot of time not just to learning but to teaching other students all about technology. They've had over a dozen outreach events for the community. And that's reassuring, because while bots are nice, we heart SCV's humans much more.
This column is intended as satire and a (sometimes successful) attempt at humor. Suggestions, catty comments and veiled threats intended for the author can be e-mailed to
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