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April 7, 2017 4:50 PM, EDT

FedEx's Fred Smith: 'Don't Be Afraid of Technology'

Aaron M. Sprecher/Bloomberg News

Should we be worried about robots taking our jobs?

Some of us, maybe — look what happened to Blockbuster video clerks — but collectively, no, FedEx Corp. chief Frederick Smith told student researchers gathered at the University of Memphis on April 6.

“Don’t be afraid of technology and innovation and robotics,” said the Memphian who pioneered overnight delivery and other innovations in logistics. “It makes people more productive. It makes goods less expensive. It makes life better.”

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FedEx ranks No. 2 on the Transport Topics Top 100 list of the largest U.S. and Canadian for-hire carriers.

Smith spoke at the opening of a National Council on Undergraduate Research conference, which has brought more than 4,000 students and faculty to Memphis this week.

“FedEx is enthusiastically embracing across the company in many ways,” Smith said.

“A couple of weeks ago, we put our first public-facing robot, Sam, into a FedEx Office location in Manhattan. Now a customer gives her broken Samsung device to Sam, which takes it back to the technician while the front office person finishes the customer transaction,” Smith said.

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Smith said FedEx’s online virtual assistant at FedEx.com, Ask FedEx, eventually will allow customers to order services by voice, hands- and paper-free on mobile devices.

As a prop, Smith interacted on stage with a robot from the FedEx TechConnect repair center in Collierville, Tenn. “Ladies and gentlemen, meet Lil’ Rico. Lil’ Rico is one of seven robots there. Some of his co-workers are named Falcon and Area 51."

Smith said FedEx is steadily working toward deploying the latest safety equipment in a fleet of more than 150,000 vehicles, and autonomous vehicles are on the far horizon.

It could be a decade before fully autonomous vehicles haul freight on highways, Smith reckoned. But an innovation called platooning could be five to seven years away. It’s a caravan of trucks that relies on a driver in a lead truck and technology that synchronizes it with the other trucks.

“That device will be for all intents and purposes a robot,” Smith said.

“We believe that the human being is better to operate vehicles in a congested environment like urban areas, and so what will happen is the more boring, high drudgery jobs will be automated, lowering costs of logistics, increasing economic growth, and so the net number of new jobs we don’t think will be decimated or influenced the way some people do,” he said.

In addition to talking innovation, Smith hit familiar themes: the need for corporate tax reform and free trade among nations.

President Donald Trump has supported corporate tax reform but also has advocated backing away from free trade agreements such as NAFTA, the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership.

Smith said imports and exports are responsible for one in five U.S. jobs. “At FedEx, we consider all our jobs to be trade-related,” he said.

The company employs more than 400,000 worldwide and more than 30,000 in the Memphis region.