Image: Wall Street Journal
Robots and the corporations who own them have been taking our jobs for years, and they're going to take a lot more soon. We all know they're automating huge industries like manufacturing, and have helped reorganize the economy to be a service-based one. But jobs in that sector are increasingly vulnerable—innovations in robotic lawnmowers, automated burger flippers, and augmented reality retailing mean that your kids' crappy summer job is at stake, too.
The technology is already there. Just about every summer job I had as a young man with an urge to make some pocket change can be done by an automaton. Today, for instance, Digital Trends reports that design engineer Jason Force, a George Mason grad student, has just unveiled the EcoMow. It's basically a Roomba for your lawn, with a snazzy difference—it runs, allegedly, entirely on the grass clippings it creates. Bonus: it also "processes the biomass that it does not use into a dried pellet form which can be used for other applications such as heating or power generation."
So there goes lawn-mowing, a summer chore I undertook back in high school to make some extra bucks. When that wasn't enough, I went corporate. My first real job was a stint as a retail salesperson at Target, where I spent my sophmore summer stocking shelves and selling Discmans and other electronics from the pre-iPod era.
That job's most likely on the way out, too—in their report The Future of Employment, the Oxford researchers Carl Benedikt Frey and Michael A. Osborne determined that there's a 92 percent chance that retail sales jobs will disappear in the next twenty years. It will likely be replaced by a combination of Amazon (delivery drones or no), in-store directory apps, and maybe even devices like ModiFace—essentially an augmented reality-based salesbot.
Then there was my junior-year summer job at a deli. Even that service job, which some point to as a burgeoning part of the economy more immune to automization, is on the verge of redundancy. That's because automated food preparation is far more efficient than any pimply teenager can manage: one robot can prepare 360 burgers an hour. And it's not just fast food, either: those burgers are gourmet, and can be ordered from a touchscreen, of course. Robots can tend bar too.
Clearly, many of these technologies are either a ways off from mass adoption, or simply never will be mass-adopted. But they're there, and if they become cost effective—for giant retailers or fast food chains or the inevitable robo-lawn care multinational—another slice of the economy will fall asunder to automation.
A lot of people will argue that this is great—these are all pretty mindless, menial jobs, after all—and will free those summer vacationing students to further their studies or chase other, more rewarding pursuits. However, some of those students rely on those jobs to help parents pay rent, or to pay for increasingly expensive college tuition fees. But the even larger problem is that these part-time jobs also serve as full-time ones for a large unskilled workforce, who rely on them as principal income.
Dislodging that major swath of the workforce will be much more problematic—we're going to need to improve our safety net and rejigger income distribution to account for the coming disruption, lest our menial labor bots service only the rich and/or eventually get smashed to bits in the inevitable Luddite 2.0 revolution. The benefits of robots taking our crappy summer jobs and thankless permanent ones will only be manifest if we take the proper steps to prepare for them politically and socially. And again, this isn't going to happen anytime soon, and raising the minimum wage for workers toiling now won't speed up the robo-summer-job-pocalypse.
But it might eventually. And don't get me wrong. I want robots to take our bad, repetitive jobs—I might have been more prepared for college or my ultimate career if I'd spent more time hitting the books or learning to code or otherwise expanding my brainspace (though seeing that happen on a larger scale will take some pushing, and some social reorganization of its own). I just want us all to be ready for it when they do. I want the robotic burger flippers and lawn mowers of tomorrow to serve all of us equally.