The first fully automated restaurant has now opened in San Francisco. Eatsa uses robots to create and deliver meals. After guests order and pay using an iPad, their meals appear in tiny glass cubicles only 60 seconds after guests are ordered. After guests have eaten their meals, they leave without ever interacting with waitstaff, cashiers, hosts, or manager. There is also no need to tip.
Eatsa is not totally automated. There is still a small kitchen staff which does prep work. One person also mans the front of the house, answering questions that visitors have about how to order and pay. The restaurant seems gimmicky, but it has already expanded to a second location in Los Angeles. Some experts believe Eatsa is a preview of the future, where robots and machines replace humans. The impetus for total automation? Money, of course. It is believed that robots can prepare meals faster, more efficiently and cheaper than humans.
Is it possible that robots will completely replace human employment on a large-scale? “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. Professor Sharkey founded the Foundation for Responsible Robotics to examine the changes in society that automation could create, with the aim of helping people deploy machines in an ethical manner.
Professor Sharkey says the widespread application of robots could create layoffs and eliminate classes of jobs. Researchers have examined automation’s impact on human work, concluding that about 47% of jobs in the United States were at risk of computerization. A 2013 Oxford University study ranked 702 occupations by their likelihood of being eliminated. Telemarketers, referees, cashiers, accountants and secretaries were ranked most likely to lose their jobs.
People in traditionally people-heavy jobs, such as law, clergy, doctors and teachers, were much less likely to find themselves eliminated from the market. Members of these professions should not celebrate, however. Richard Susskind wrote a book arguing that even these professions will be replaced by increasingly smart machines and robots. In fact, in 2015 a new tool called ROSS was created to take over the time-consuming work of legal research. The ROSS system uses IBM’s artificially intelligent super-computer Watson to replace the duties of lawyers, legal secretaries and paralegals.
The creator of ROSS defends the system by pointing out that it could increase access to the legal system for people who do not have funds to hire expensive law firms. The argument that automation makes things quicker and less expensive is what proponents believe makes robotics common good. The question for human beings is whether the potential for mass job loss – Deloitte estimates that the UK already lost 31,000 legal jobs due to automation, and Sharkey estimates there will be 35 million service robots working by 2018 – outweighs the potential benefits of automation.
Some businesses have responded to concerns about job loss by pointing out that their robots will augment their service workers rather than replace them. Maidbot, a company which uses robots to clean hotel rooms, claims its robots are not intended to replace the staff. Other companies are more upfront about their aims. San Francisco’s Momentum Machines is a startup that is creating fully automated food machines. Their non-human creations can cook a hamburger, toss a salad and assemble a sandwich. “Our device isn’t meant to make employees more efficient,” co-founder Alexandros Vardakostas told Xconomy. “It’s meant to completely obviate them.”
To some extent the anxiety over automation mirrors concerns that have occurred throughout the Industrial Revolution and beyond. People were once horrified by the use of machines in farming. The result has been an increase in the capacity of farms to produce more food more efficiently, freeing up people to do other important tasks. The question is whether automation in other industries will have similar consequences, and if so, whether there will be other work for people to turn to once their jobs are gone. Only time, and robots, will tell.