Ask for a roast beef sandwich at an Arby’s drive-thru east of Los Angeles and you’ll be talking to Tory—an artificially intelligent voice assistant who will take your order and send it to the line cook.
“It doesn’t say ill,” said Amir Siddiqui, whose family this year installed AI Voice at their Arabica franchise in Ontario, Calif. “It doesn’t get corona. And it has great credibility.”
The pandemic not only posed a threat to the health of Americans when it slammed the US in 2020 – it also posed a long-term threat to many of their jobs. Faced with labor shortages and high labor costs, companies are beginning to automate service sector jobs that economists once considered safe, believing that machines simply could not provide human interaction. that the customers would demand.
Past experience shows that such automation waves ultimately create more jobs than they destroy, but that they also disproportionately wipe out the low-skilled jobs on which many low-income workers depend. The consequences of growing pains for the US economy could be dire.
If not for the pandemic, Siddiqui might not have bothered to invest in new technology that could alienate existing employees and some customers. But it went smoothly, he said: “Basically, fewer people are needed but those people are now working in kitchens and other areas.”
Ideally, automation could redeploy workers into better and more interesting jobs, says economist Johannes Moenius of the University of Redlands, as long as they can receive the appropriate technical training. But although it is happening now, it is not moving very fast, he says.
Worse yet, an entire class of service jobs may now be at risk when manufacturing begins to implement more automation. “Robots escaped from the manufacturing sector and moved to the much larger service sector,” he said. “I considered the contact jobs to be safe. I was completely shocked.”
Improvements in robotic technology allow machines to perform many tasks that previously required people – tossing pizza dough, transporting hospital linens, inspecting gauges, sorting goods. The pandemic accelerated their adoption. After all, robots can neither get sick nor spread disease. Nor do they demand time off to handle unexpected child care emergencies.
Economists at the International Monetary Fund found that past pandemics had encouraged firms to invest in machines that could boost productivity – but also kill low-skill jobs. “Our results suggest that concerns about the rise of robots in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic seem reasonable,” he wrote in a January paper.
The consequences could be worst on less-educated women, who occupy disproportionately low- and medium-wage jobs exposed to automation – and to viral infections. Those jobs include salesclerks in hospitals, administrative assistants, cashiers and aides, and caregivers of the sick and elderly.
Employers seem eager to bring in the machines. A survey last year by the non-profit World Economic Forum found that 43% of companies plan to reduce their workforce as a result of new technology. Since the second quarter of 2020, business investment in equipment has grown 26% – more than twice as fast as the overall economy.
The fastest growth is expected in rowing machines that clean the floors of supermarkets, hospitals and warehouses, according to the International Federation of Robotics, a trade group. The same group also expects an increase in sales of robots that provide information to shoppers or place room service orders at hotels.
Restaurants have been among the most visible robot adopters. For example, in late August, salad chain SweetGreen announced that it was buying kitchen robotics startup Spice, which makes a machine that cooks vegetables and grains and puts them in bowls.
It’s not just robots – software and AI-powered services are on the rise too. Starbucks has been automating the behind-the-scenes work of tracking the store’s inventory. More stores have moved to self-checkout.
Scott Lawton, CEO of Arlington, VA-based restaurant chain Bartaco, said servers were having trouble returning to their restaurants when they reopened during the pandemic.
So he decided to do without them. With the help of a software firm, his company developed an online ordering and payment system that customers can use on their phones. Diners now simply scan a barcode in the center of each table to access a menu and order their food without waiting for a server. Workers bring food and drink to their tables. And when they’ve finished eating, customers pay on their phones and leave.
Innovation has shaved off the workforce, but doesn’t necessarily make workers’ conditions worse. Each Bartaco location – there are 21 – now has eight assistant managers, almost double the pre-pandemic total. There are many former servers, and they rotate between tables to make sure everyone has what they need. They are paid an annual salary starting at $55,000 instead of an hourly wage.
The tips are now shared among all other employees, including dishwashers, who now typically earn $20 an hour or more — far more than their pre-pandemic pay. “We don’t have the labor shortage you’re reading about on the news,” Lawton said.
The boom in automation hasn’t stopped a surprising rebound in the US jobs market, at least for now.
The US economy hit a staggering 22.4 million jobs in March and April 2020, when the storm of the pandemic caused US hiring to bounce back at a rapid pace: employers have brought back 17 million jobs since April 2020. In June, they posted a record 10.1 million jobs. are opening up and complaining that they are not getting enough staff.
Behind the hiring boom is a boom in spending by consumers, many of whom have gone through the crisis in unexpectedly good shape financially – thanks to both federal relief investigations and, in many cases, the abandonment of working from home and the daily commute. Savings accumulated by giving
For now, the short-term benefits of the economic snapback are outweighing any job losses from automation, the effects of which appear gradually over a period of years. It can’t last. Last year, researchers from the University of Zurich and the University of British Columbia found that the so-called jobless recovery of the past 35 years, in which economic output rebounded from recession faster than employment, could be explained by the loss of jobs vulnerable to automation. .
Despite strong recruitment since the middle of last year, the US economy is still short of 5.3 million jobs as of February 2020. And leading US economist Lydia Bussour at Oxford Economics calculated in August that 40% of missing jobs are unsafe. For automation, especially in food preparation, retailing and manufacturing.
Some economists worry that automation pushes workers into low-paying positions. Daron Acemoglu, an economist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Pascual Restrepo of Boston University estimated in June that up to 70% of the stagnation in US wages between 1980 and 2016 could be explained by machines that replaced humans doing regular jobs. Huh.
“Many jobs that get automated were in the middle of skill delivery,” Acemoglu said. “They no longer exist, and the employees who used to perform them are now doing low-skill jobs.”