Robots, waiters and the service economy

This recent posting from the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies is one of the more thoughtful among recent reflections on the increasingly popular topic of robots replacing human workers. Like so many of these, however – especially those articles with clever calculators embedded in the story – there may be too much emphasis on jobs as functional and outcome-oriented. Something needs making, or doing, or transporting: and robots are getting better at delivering these outcomes.

But the Daily Mail calculation that waiters and waitresses have a 93.7% chance of being automated ignores the fact that the cornerstone of the service industry is that a human being is doing the serving. Marketing promotions can be built around robots filling in for people; orders can be automated; and some restaurants even reckon they are moving edgily on trend by asking customers if they have “eaten at Gobfiller before” (as if those customers are about to enjoy some sort of transformative experience) before telling them that the customers must serve themselves.

Before assessing the chance that any service economy job is going to be handed over to a robot, we must calculate the extent to which humanity itself is implicit in the delivery of the service. It is one thing for AI to access and impart information: quite another to simulate the human experience of its empathetic exchange.

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