Are You Being Served? The Influence of Robotics on the Service Industry
Robotics has changed the world many times over, especially in the manufacturing industry, but it appears that robots are being set up to take over the service industry as well. Granted, perhaps the words “take over” are a bit strong, but then, that seems to be the sentiment among various people who are seeing the way robotics and automation are changing various sectors of service-based employment quite rapidly.
Robots in Service Jobs: The Potential Dark Side
Many people, such as Martin Ford, robotics expert and author of The Lights In the Tunnel: Automation, Accelerating Technology and the Economy of the Future, are really anxious about robots eventually replacing humans in low-wage, entry-level service positions. It could cause problems, especially as there are serious questions about whether higher education systems in the West are ready to take on the need for mass retraining of a sizable portion of the population.
Personally, I have to agree with this concern, especially with the cost of college tuition being so high in the U.S. Many people in the lower-class sectors take food service and other low-wage, high-turnover jobs because that’s been a longtime safety net. But with these kinds of jobs, it is really difficult to pay college tuition, even if you save up meticulously and only go part-time.
So imagine being made redundant by a robot who can do your job just as well, or better, than you can. You could try and apply for school loans for retraining, but without a job of some sort, how do you pay them back?
Either we need more colleges, to post free classes with free materials, via sites like Coursera.org, or the college education system needs to go the way of university in many European countries: little to no cost to anyone, depending on the degree program and country.
Robots in Service Jobs: The Potential Light Side
I’m one of those people, however, who can see the potential positives for robots being put into the service sector. Food service, for example, is not often the most fun sector to be in for many people. Wages are often low, the highest being perhaps $9.00 to $10/hour, and often times, there’s lots of grease involved, especially on your face. To say nothing of the burns you might get on your hands if you’re constantly in front of a fryer. Add to that the tongue-lashings you get from customers if something’s not up to their potentially finicky standards. If you wanted to get out of there, and go do something else, such as freelance work, where you’re able to use your own skills (like writing or music—skills and talents that, unfortunately, get wasted in food service), or perhaps get retrained, you might rejoice at the idea of a robot coming to take over for you—permanently.
Or if you like being in food service, there’s every potential that robots coming in would be a fun experience for you—especially if we learn to regard robots as part of society instead of seeing them as a “Terminator”-like threat.
There’s also the potential positive impact of robots going into jobs that are dangerous for humans, allowing humans to stay in a company and earn far more than they used to because they’re the ones overseeing the robots, such as what happened with the company called Marlin Steel. This is a particularly rosy picture, and I’m personally inclined to breathe a sigh of relief at this thought: robots working side by side with humans and no one has to get hurt—or unemployed.
Assistive Robots: Good? Bad?
Imagine a fleet of robots doing what CAN’s (certified nursing assistants) and other staffers might do: delivering drugs, blood samples, even haul laundry. These are menial tasks, to be sure. They’re more than a bit tedious, to say nothing of dirty: having to deal with soiled bedsheets. This kind of robot easily lightens everyone’s burden, if not replace them completely, which might actually be good for the CNAs in question. The hospital at University of California, San Francisco, one of many hospitals out there who are using these robots called TUG, have successfully created good human-to-robot relationships, and they’ve saved hospital administrators tons of money.
This is clearly a positive, and let’s face it, these robots are kind of cute. At the UCSF hospital, TUGs are even dressed to look like cable cars, especially on the children’s ward, to make them a little less utilitarian and more “cool.”
This being said, robots in the health care industry might be a bit daunting for patients who are still looking for the human touch. Could robots take away that all-too-important bedside manner, especially when it comes to taking care of elderly patients? Perhaps, especially in the U.S., where robots are portrayed in a less-than-beautiful light.
However, if robots can diagnose conditions far more accurately than a doctor or even an nurse-practitioner can—and many human MD’s and NP’s have trouble keeping up on all the newest findings—then I say, let the personal touch happen with the nurses, alternative medicine people (naturopaths) psychologists and so on.
Robots in Personal Entertainment and Household Service
It’s interesting to note that robots in these service fields tend to dominate in Japan and Korea, especially when it comes to humanoid-looking robots, and the U.S. really hasn’t quite embraced this yet.
I think this has to do with cultural attitudes. In the U.S., we have a very antagonistic, creation-turns-against-its-creator fear when it comes to robots, and Japan, for example, sees being around robots in a more positive light. Perhaps this is due to their Shinto-based cultural beliefs that everything—object, human, animal, is essentially connected – and they all want to live in harmony.
Personally, deep-down, I like the Shinto-based philosophy surrounding robots. I’ve never honestly been a big fan of the idea that robots have to be all bad. Surely there’s a way we can co-exist with what we create—not to the extent of all of us becoming part human, part machine—but living alongside robots, to the extent of actually having robot butlers, or something similar.
But the fact that the closest that Western cinema has come to creating cute robots (like the ones commonly seen in Asia) is “Wall-E,” or “Johnny-Five,” then we here in the U.S. really need to re-examine our ways of seeing things.
Of course, we Americans also seem to have an overarching tendency towards robotics being industrial and practical. Even a $600-something expense like a Roomba is justifiable, because it’s a household-service bot that cleans your floors. Americans tend not to think in terms of robots being social companions and personal entertainment—partly because of the antagonistic ways we perceive the world, and partly because we’ve got a strong bias towards having human companions.
After all, it’s common, for example, for non-gamers in the West to tell avid gamers to “get away from that stupid Playstation and get a life!” We’re judged by how social we are with other humans, and the idea of being friends with a computer-based object is scary. The Playstation, and other systems like it, therefore are our closest form of “robotic” entertainment that we have.
That is, unless, you count the number of Roomba-riding cats on YouTube. We may not have robotic pets like Japan does, but our live pets’ antics, combined with our very practical robotic inventions tend to make for an interesting blend of personal and household service.
It’s clear that robotics has already had substantial influence on service industries, and is striking fear in the hearts of many who are seeing the potential dark side of too many robots taking over services. Perhaps it’s our very Western anti-robot view clouding our vision. Perhaps we’re so used to living in fear, actually, of other people, rather than robots, taking away something—like jobs and happiness–that we don’t see how we could ever live in true harmony with a computer chip and a computerized voice that very plainly tells you facts about a situation and doesn’t make faces at you or judge you for being a certain way.
What do you think? Do you think it’s possible that we can relinquish our fearful attitudes and live side by side in harmony with robots, allowing new job markets to open because of robotics in the service sectors freeing us up to do as our hearts desire?