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Humans vs Robots in the Service Industry

For those of you who have read my book you know that one of my ten predictions for the future of work is that robots and related tech will replace humans in most service industry jobs and especially in fast food, restaurants and the travel industry.

A steady stream of announcements over the past few months are making me think that it will happen sooner than even I predicted. In China restaurants are popping up that are completely staffed by robots, in Japan there is a hotel opening that will be 100% staffed by robots and here in San Francisco a fast food restaurant by the name of Eatsa just announced that it would open sans people.

From a business perspective the possibility of being able to open up a fast food restaurant that is entirely staffed by robots and related tech is extremely attractive. Not only do the per restaurant economics look attractive but it paves the way to quickly scale across geography. In other words, if all I have to do to open up a new restaurant in a new city is find a property and outfit it with my brand and equipment and am not forced to recruit, train and manage people then scaling becomes exponentially easier.

So it is obvious that the business case makes sense from a purely economic perspective since my costs are lower per restaurant, my overhead at corporate is less because I do not need the infrastructure required when managing thousands of people, and all of that means that I make more per food unit and I can either take that as profit or invest it back into the business for growth. But this raises an interesting question that I talk a lot about in my book, and about which I think most people who talk about robots and AI get wrong. The question is around which types of jobs we as humans are going to do vs robots and why? For instance, most futurists talk about a future world where robots do all of these really mundane and repetitive jobs and where humans do “human work” which is work that is creative, that requires a high degree of emotional intelligence, that requires interpersonal skills, etc. Think about the difference between a job on an assembly line and that of a teacher or a sales person.

But here is the thing; aren’t “service jobs” by their very nature ones that require a high degree of emotional intelligence and interpersonal skills? For instance, I love to eat out and my favorite restaurants are ones where not only the food is good but where the service is also great. A good wait staff person is one that creates a connection with new patrons and builds a relationship with regulars. And the same goes for hotels, and clothing stores, and the like. So if these jobs are going to be some of the first to go then doesn’t it beg the question that maybe robots will actually be able to do all of the jobs that require what futurists claim are “unique human skills”?

In my book I pursue this line of reasoning and my “big” prediction is that in fact the jobs that will be the first to be disrupted will be exactly those jobs that most people think will be the last. I believe wholeheartedly that we will be able to make a machine think like a human before we will be able to make one move like a human.

As I write this someone is at my house installing carpet in my daughter’s bedroom. It will take years (decades even?) before a robot can replace what he is doing; loading the carpet and tools on the truck, driving to my house, unloading the carpet and tools, carrying them up two flights of stairs, walking to the back bedroom and then doing everything required to install the carpet such as using tools, measuring, etc. On the other hand, we are almost at the point where we no longer need a doctor to diagnose our diseases and recommend treatment. And like I say in the book, if we can replace doctors we will quickly replace lawyers, accountants, etc.

The future is here…..are you ready?


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