The so-called "service industry" - which includes restaurants, entertainment outlets, retail stores and hotels, among other businesses - has traditionally been one of the fastest-growing employment sectors in the country, even in a struggling U.S. economy. But its workforce could be decimated in the years ahead by the coming explosion of robotics, which threatens to slash millions of jobs much in the way the use of robots have downsized employment in the nation's manufacturing sector.
"If you meet Baxter, the latest humanoid robot from Rethink Robotics - you should get comfortable with him, because you'll likely be seeing more of him soon," according to a March 26 story by The Fiscal Times. "Rethink Robotics released Baxter last fall and received an overwhelming response from the manufacturing industry, selling out of their production capacity through April. He's cheap to buy ($22,000), easy to train, and can safely work side-by-side with humans. He's just what factories need to make their assembly lines more efficient - and yes, to replace costly human workers. But manufacturing is only the beginning."
The employment writing is on the wall, and it's not pretty: Jobs for humans are simply going to become even more scarce in the years ahead, as companies develop - and businesses and manufacturers enlist - more robots to do the jobs that need to be done. That will gut unions, weaken households and boost poverty - except among the privileged elite.
The robots are coming - for your job
This month, Rethink begins launch of a software platform that allows Baxter the robot to do more complex sequencing of tasks, like picking up a part and holding it up for inspection, then putting it in a "good" or "not good" pile. In addition, Rethink will be releasing a software development kit that will allow third parties, such as university robotics researchers, to create additional applications for Baxter, FT reports.
Those third parties "are going to do all sorts of stuff we haven't envisioned," Scott Eckert, CEO of Rethink, told FT. He sees app development along the lines of Apple's app store for Baxter. Versions could have Baxter pouring coffee, flipping hamburgers, folding clothes at retail stores and other uses now being performed by employed humans.
"Could [Baxter] be a barista?" asks Eckert. "It's not a target market, but it's something that's pretty repeatable. Put a cup in, push a button, espresso comes out, etc. There are simple repeatable service tasks that Baxter could do over time."
Indeed, some firms likely won't have to wait for upgraded, updated Baxter versions. Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) already has what they call a BakeBot that is capable of reading recipes, assemble cookie dough and put it in an oven. And the University of California, Berkeley has a robot that can fold t-shirts and do laundry.
As development moves forward, more jobs will be threatened
"Robot servers have started waiting tables in restaurants in Japan, South Korea, China and Thailand - and just last week, a robot served Passover matzah to President Obama during his trip to Israel," Fiscal Times said.
"Every year, machines are getting more capable of doing low-level tasks," Professor Seth Teller, a robotics researcher at MIT's Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab, said.
All of this robotic development, while it may sound "cool" or "revolutionary," is, quite simply, going to put scores of people out of work, many for good, perhaps. But unlike humans, robots don't have to earn money for mortgages and car payments, groceries and heat. And unlike humans, robot labor doesn't generate income, so there is nothing to tax, meaning federal, state and local tax revenue bases will shrink.
"The set of jobs that won't someday be done by robots is actually rather small and shrinking, as technology advances," Mani Subramani, an associate professor with the Carlson School of Management at the University of Minnesota, told FT.