From waitstaff to care companions and legal researchers, the future of the machine worker is here. But where does that leave humans
This article titled “Welcome to the robot-based workforce: will your job become automated too?” was written by Julia Carrie Wong in San Francisco, for The Observer on Saturday 19th March 2016 14.24 UTC
“It’s pure magic,” Eatsa promises.
At San Francisco’s first fully automated restaurant, meals appear in little glass cubbies, just 90 seconds after customers order and pay on wall-mounted iPads. It’s a human-less experience – no waitstaff, no cashier, no one to get your order wrong and no one to tip.
It’s also a parlor trick.
The moment before the meal appears, the see-through display screen that fronts the cubbies goes black for the few seconds when you might catch sight of the hand that feeds you.
Eatsa has not yet achieved total automation. The company admits it employs a small kitchen staff, and one employee is present in the front of the house, answering questions about how to order and dodging questions about what’s going on behind the wall of magic cubbies. (“Whatever you imagine,” he teases.)
But the restaurant, which opened in August and has already expanded to Los Angeles, offers a glimpse of a fast-approaching reality, where whole categories of tasks that were once the exclusive province of humans can be accomplished quicker, cheaper, and more reliably by machines.
The future is here, and no one’s job is safe.
Machines at work
“I can see mass unemployment on the horizon as the robotics revolution takes hold,” said Noel Sharkey, a professor emeritus of robotics and artificial intelligence at the University of Sheffield in the UK. Sharkey recently started the Foundation for Responsible Robotics to help us avoid the “potential societal and ethical hazards” from the widespread application of autonomous robots.
There’s nothing particularly new about the alarm Sharkey is sounding. In 2013, Oxford scholars Carl Benedikt Frey and Michael A Osborne warned that approximately 47% of total US employment was at risk of computerization, in an analysis that ranked 702 occupations by their likelihood of being eliminated.
Telemarketers, accountants, sports referees, legal secretaries, and cashiers were found to be among the most likely to lose their jobs, while doctors, preschool teachers, lawyers, artists, and clergy remained relatively safe.
In The Future of the Professions, published in 2015, authors Richard Susskind and his son, Daniel Susskind, argued that even those traditional professions will decline and be replaced by “increasingly capable systems”.
The Susskinds need no longer use the future tense. Last summer a legal assistance tool called ROSS was launched, which uses IBM’s artificially intelligent super-computer Watson to take over the work of legal research.
ROSS Intelligence co-founder and CEO Andrew Arruda argues that the tool, which can perform work that once took hours in a matter of seconds, is not a threat to jobs since major law firms stopped billing for hours spent on research during the Great Recession. He also said that ROSS would “increase access to justice” by making legal representation more accessible for the 80% of Americans who cannot afford it.
Still, ROSS is doing work that humans were once paid top dollar to perform.
On Tuesday, the Financial Times reported on an analysis by Deloitte that found that the UK had already lost 31,000 jobs in the legal sector to automation, and projected that another 114,000 jobs would be next.
It’s all happening very fast. In 2013, MIT engineering professor John Leonard told the MIT Technology Review that “robots simply replacing humans” would not happen in his lifetime. “The semi-autonomous taxi will still have a driver,” he argued. Today, Google’s autonomous cars have traveled more than 1m miles on public streets, and self-driving taxis seem all but inevitable.
Sharkey expects that the service industry will be particularly hard hit. He estimates that by 2018 there will be 35 million service robots “at work”.
A bartending robot named “Monsieur” is already on the market. A hardware store in San Jose, California has a retail associate robot named “Oshbot.” The UK salad bar chain Tossed reportedly announced this month that two outlets in London would have self-service kiosks instead of cashiers. On Thursday, Domino’s Australia unveiled a pizza delivery robot in Brisbane.
Some companies seem sensitive to the criticism that they might be taking away people’s jobs.
“There’s excitement from the tech press, but we’re also starting to see some negative threads about it being terrifying, ready to take humans’ jobs,” wrote one Google employee in internal emails obtained by Bloomberg.
Micah Green, the founder of Maidbot, a company building robots to clean hotel rooms, emphasizes that “at this stage” the company’s products are “an augmentation, not replacement” of housekeepers.
Other inventors make no bones about their job-replacing intentions.
Just a few miles away from Eatsa another San Francisco startup, Momentum Machines, is building robots that could replace the minions behind the curtain. In 2012, the company debuted a fully automated hamburger making machine, and its website boasts that it has moved on to salads, sandwiches, and “many other multi-ingredient foods”.
“Our device isn’t meant to make employees more efficient,” co-founder Alexandros Vardakostas told Xconomy. “It’s meant to completely obviate them.”
Mabu, the robot friend
In 2014, Stowe Boyd, a self-described post-futurist, threw down the gauntlet. “The central question of 2025 will be: What are people for in a world that does not need their labor, and where only a minority are needed to guide the ‘bot-based economy?’” he asked in a Pew Research Center report.
The answer may lie in the kinds of activities that are frequently unpaid: care work traditionally assigned to women. Computers and robots may be better than humans at manual labor, paperwork, and even logic, but they do not feel, and they cannot empathize.
At least, not really.
In a basement office in San Francisco’s Dogpatch neighborhood, Dr Cory Kidd is building a robot whose sole job is to motivate its owners into positive behavioral changes.
Mabu is a desk lamp-sized robot who carries a touchpad on her belly. As a “personal healthcare companion”, she is intended for patients managing chronic diseases. With wide green eyes and pale yellow skin, she could be one of the personified feelings in the Pixar movie Inside Out. And feelings are what she is all about.
For a robot, Mabu doesn’t do anything particularly impressive. She just sits on your bedside table, waking up once or twice a day to hold a conversation with her owner.
Those conversations, designed with input from behavioral psychologists and a former Hollywood screenwriter and made possible by artificial intelligence that helps Mabu adapt to an individual’s personality and interests, are intended to “leverage the patient’s own motivation” to follow their treatment plans.
Mabu is subtly female in voice and in appearance, a choice Kidd says is based on research that, stereotypically, “women are seen as more helpful and caring”.
Does Mabu care for us? She is plastic, but when Kidd tells her that he does not feel that great, she responds, “You’re carrying a lot on your shoulders,” and dips her head in a gesture that looks like empathy.
Do we care for Mabu? Kidd says that when he has collected her from patients after trials, many have objected. “They say, ‘She’s like a member of the family.’”
She can provide a certain kind of emotional and psychological support that humans might not be able to accomplish effectively. Imagine your partner asking you every single day whether you have taken your pill, and then imagine how long they would remain your partner. (This is why Kidd says, “we’re not replacing any human. I can’t think of a person who would be a healthcare companion.”)
But if Mabu can be better at being human than humans can, what is left for us?
Perhaps only the bearing and rearing of new humans. This is where Noel Sharkey draws the line. In 2008, Sharkey published The Ethical Frontiers of Robotics in the journal Science, a paper in which he warned against the development of “child-minding robots” already taking place in Japan and South Korea.
Sharkey has continued to study developments in the field of nanny robots, including some that are already available, such as the “Childcare Robot PaPeRo” from Japan’s Nippon Electric Company (NEC).
“We have already seen the overuse of robots in looking after children,” Sharkey says. “From our detailed analysis of the possibility of long term care of children by robots, we can expect a number of severe attachment disorders that could reap havoc in our society.”
It’s all of our job to prevent that.
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