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What Happens When Robots Take Service Jobs?

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Baxter, created by Rethink Robotics, is a robot capable of working in manufacturing, but may soon be able to work at Starbucks or McDonald's. Should human employees be worried?

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Restaurant work also supports aging boomers as they transition out of the workforce – 12 percent of restaurant workers are 55 and older. "Many older Americans have fallen back on jobs in the restaurant industry, as they seek to transition to a new career or are simply unable to find other work," write the authors of the Aspen Institute report.

Teller at MIT argues that economic disruption from technology is nothing new – we've seen it before with inventions like the cotton gin, the automobile, and the personal computer. "One way to frame this is robots are taking human jobs away, but technology has, throughout history, transformed the nature of human jobs," he says. "As machines get more capable, they take on functions that were previously performed by people. There's a displacement, certainly, but we're still seeing this transformation play out, so you just don't know whether there's going to be a net gain or a loss [of jobs]."

According to Teller, Baxter and other robots could create jobs in new industries we haven't even envisioned yet. The PC, for example, eliminated plenty of jobs while creating millions of others. And he has a point – Baxter is creating some jobs. Rethink Robotics employs 85 people at their Boston headquarters that would've never existed without Baxter – though most are high-level engineers, designers and salespeople.

At the factories that are buying Baxter, employers now create robot "managers" to oversee Baxter. Baxter is also made in the U.S., and Rethink employs some 100 people in factories and distributors – though in an ironic twist, they're already planning to use Baxter to help build Baxter.

As robots move into other sectors and the home, Teller says the job opportunities are abundant. Robot IT and maintenance personnel, designers and salespeople for robot accessories, software, and apps, and robot security developers are just a few examples. "If personal robots are the next thing and everyone wants one in their house, doing the laundry and unloading the dishwasher, we're talking about another decade of massive economic activity," says Teller.

The PC, however, also created a decade of economic wealth – but the wealth has largely stayed at the top. Facebook, Apple, Amazon and Google don't employ many people, relatively speaking, but they have about 6.25 percent of the market cap of all U.S. companies. Yes, PCs have created IT jobs and software developers, but the tech industry is small compared to retail and restaurant industries. Computer and mathematical jobs make up about 3 percent of the labor force, according to the BLS, and require advanced degrees and years of training. Will the U.S.'s higher education system be prepared for massive retraining? Will service employees have the time and resources to learn new skills? Will enough high-skill jobs be available for them? No one is quite sure where they'll go when robots like Baxter push them out.

Erik Brynjolfsson, director of the MIT Center for Digital Business and co-author of Rise Against the Machine, has been warning economists about the coming job disruption for years. "Technology doesn't automatically lift the fortunes of all people," Brynjolfsson said recently to a crowd at Wharton University in San Francisco. "Profits [in the U.S.] have never been higher, innovation is roaring along, GDP is high, but job creation is lagging terribly, and the share of profits going to labor is at a 60-year low. This is one of the most important issues facing our society."

Editor's Note: This article by Blaire Briody originally appeared on The Fiscal Times.

For more from The Fiscal Times:

10 Jobs That Won't Be Taken By Robots...Yet


The Rise of Robots - and Decline of Jobs - Is Here

The Robot Revoluition: Your Job May Be Next

Follow The Fiscal Times on Twitter @TheFiscalTimes.
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