Amazon, Applebee’s and Google’s job-crushing drones and robot armies: They’re coming for your job next

It's inescapable: We'll be replaced by robots or turn into them. What happens to waitresses and taxi drivers then?

Topics: robots, Drones, Airports, tablets, iPads, Labor, industrial revolution, Jobs, Editor's Picks, Applebee's, amazon, Google, Jeff Bezos, 60 Minutes, ,

Amazon, Applebee's and Google's job-crushing drones and robot armies: They're coming for your job next (Credit: Ociacia, MaraZe via Shutterstock/Salon)

Alienation comes easy when you stumble into the glare of a modern airport off a red-eye flight. Bleary-eyed after three hours of fitful sleep, unready for the dawn, I did not know what to make of the bewildering sea of iPads that surrounded me on all sides.

Concourse G in the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport has given itself up wholeheartedly to tablet worship. Every single seat in the gate area came with its own iPad-equipped table. A restaurant sprawling nearby continued the theme — no wait-staff visible, but an iPad in a cradle sitting upright in front of every chair.

Facing a long layover, I knew I had to eat. But for a moment I was paralyzed. Any substantive distinction between the boarding area and restaurant had been annihilated and I didn’t know where to turn. I’m no stranger to screen-addiction, but my first reaction to this hall of iPad mirrors — I could see hundreds from where I stood — was queasiness. I felt like I had stumbled inside a sadistic Apple commercial, rather than a place meant for living, breathing humans.

I eventually realized that I could sit down and order breakfast-via-iPad from any seat in the concourse. Before starting, I was required to input my flight details (presumably so I could be warned when my flight was boarding). Then I ordered coffee and breakfast — two eggs sunny-side up, home fries, bacon and orange juice — through a clunky menu interface. A card-reader to my right enabled payment.

A few minutes later, a waitress appeared with a cup of coffee. Ten minutes after that, she returned with the rest of the food. We exchanged hardly a word.

And I wondered: Why was the airport bothering with any human touch at all? Why wasn’t a drone bringing me my bacon? I mean, isn’t that the obvious next step?

* * *

It’s been a provocative week to think about robots and the ongoing technologically mediated evisceration of labor. On Sunday night, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos announced on CBS’s “60 Minutes” that his company might one day cut delivery times to half-an-hour through the deployment of drones. On Tuesday, Applebee’s revealed that the casual dining chain would be installing tablets in all of its restaurants. On Wednesday, the New York Times’ John Markoff reported that Google had gobbled up a half-dozen robotics start-ups over the past year.

One quote from Markoff’s piece got straight to the point.

“The opportunity is massive,” said Andrew McAfee, a principal research scientist at the M.I.T. Center for Digital Business. “There are still people who walk around in factories and pick things up in distribution centers and work in the back rooms of grocery stores.”

There are still people employed to pick things up and move them around! Can you even imagine?! It’s almost 2014, people!

In response to Bezos, a flood of naysayers immediately decried the impracticality of drone-package delivery in any short-term time frame. One of my own Salon colleagues was also quick to dismiss the potentially dehumanizing aspects of Applebee’s tablet move. (She made the hard-to-argue-with point that Applebee’s move to tablet ordering won’t wreck the social experience of dining, because “everything is already wrecked.”) Meanwhile, a majority of economists still seem to be convinced that a robots-everywhere world will spur job-creating economic growth, rather than further accelerate a rising tide of unemployment.

You Might Also Like

Nobody knows how it will play out, but one thing seems certain: We won’t have to wait too long to find out whether a robot apocalypse is going to ravage society. The sense of increasing momentum toward a more robot-infested future is undeniable. No matter what the regulators say, I find it impossible to imagine that there won’t be more drones in our skies, more tablet menus replacing human beings, more jobs accomplished by automation. Whether this transition is driven because it delivers true convenience for consumers, or whether it simply makes economic sense for the masters of capital, the logic of this technological evolution is inexorable.

The landscape of Concourse G sent a clear message: We are doing everything in our power to take the human out of the equation.

I suppose it is possible that my Minneapolis nausea should properly be blamed on lack of sleep, but I still found myself wondering: When the humans are gone, what’s left?

* * *

The Minneapolis-St. Paul airport isn’t alone. OTG, an airport food-and-beverage operator whose “mission is to transform the airport experience for travelers,” has similar tablet test projects under way in New York’s LaGuardia and Toronto’s Pearson airports. So far, however, Minneapolis is probably the largest; one news report says OTG installed more than 2,500 iPads in Concourse G.

And size matters. It’s one thing to order a cocktail and a roast-beef sandwich from the seat-back display screen in front of you on a Virgin America flight, and be gratified when the flight attendant drops it off a few minutes later. It seems an efficient and sensible way of organizing logistics on a plane. It’s quite another to see the mass reorganization of a large physical space into something designed to minimize the necessity for human labor. Because the obvious implication is: Why stop here? If it makes economic sense to automate the food-ordering process in an airport, what point is there in having a human waiter to take your order at any dining establishment that isn’t already charging a premium for high-class flesh-and-blood service.

The current not-quite-prime-time technological capabilities of drones and regulatory constraints on airspace may make Jeff Bezos’ grandiose dreams seem like wishful thinking at the moment. But is there any doubt that drone technology will become both better and cheaper?

If it turns out there is money to be made by automating package delivery, I can guarantee you that regulatory barriers will fall. Drones have already been used in attempts to deliver drugs and tobacco across prison walls. We’re going to find lots of things to do with them — and some of them might even be socially progressive.

Similarly, if insurance companies determine from their number crunching that Google’s self-driving cars are safer than human-operated cars, they will write the insurance policies that put those cars on the street. They’d be crazy not too. And so Google’s robot armies will march everywhere.

Panglossians believe that robots will perform the world’s drudgery, ushering in an era of affluence and leaving humans free to nurture their creative instincts. Whether our creative instincts will be able to generate the capital necessary to purchase the products of robot labor is as yet unknown. I’ve noted before that the big difference between the current technological revolution and the Industrial Revolution is that the initial technological advances of the 18th century created jobs for unskilled workers, while today’s robot armies are increasingly replacing the jobs of unskilled workers.

When the warehouse and the delivery and the waitress and taxi driver jobs are gone, where do those workers go? Will our education system be robust enough to keep them ahead of the rising technological curve?

But now I have a new worry. As I sat in the Minneapolis airport watching waiters and waitresses scurry about the concourse delivering food and drink, it occurred to me that they didn’t actually need to be replaced by drones — because they had already become drones. Their job requirements had been reduced to the bare minimum. From the kitchen to the customer and back again they went. And that was it.

But the customers themselves had also become drones. Each staring into their own iPad, alone, even if traveling as a family or a group. Watching them, I felt the same frustration that badgers me when I try to fit my particular customer support problem into the constraints of the decision tree of an automated voice-mail menu. I am a living, breathing human being — my problem is unique! Don’t force me to become like you, an automated, unthinking algorithm!

The truth is, my problem almost assuredly isn’t unique. The voice-mail robots are just too dumb. And as the robots get smarter, they’ll fit into their world better and better. In this future, we’re all drones.

Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails
    Martyna Blaszczyk/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 1

    Pond de l'Archeveche - hundreds thousands of padlocks locked to a bridge by random couples, as a symbol of their eternal love. After another iconic Pont des Arts bridge was cleared of the padlocks in 2010 (as a safety measure), people started to place their love symbols on this one. Today both of the bridges are full of love locks again.

    Anders Andersson/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 2

    A bird's view of tulip fields near Voorhout in the Netherlands, photographed with a drone in April 2015.

    Aashit Desai/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 3

    Angalamman Festival is celebrated every year in a small town called Kaveripattinam in Tamil Nadu. Devotees, numbering in tens of thousands, converge in this town the day after Maha Shivratri to worship the deity Angalamman, meaning 'The Guardian God'. During the festival some of the worshippers paint their faces that personifies Goddess Kali. Other indulge in the ritual of piercing iron rods throughout their cheeks.

    Allan Gichigi/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 4

    Kit Mikai is a natural rock formation about 40m high found in Western Kenya. She goes up the rocks regularly to meditate. Kit Mikai, Kenya

    Chris Ludlow/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 5

    On a weekend trip to buffalo from Toronto we made a pit stop at Niagara Falls on the Canadian side. I took this shot with my nexus 5 smartphone. I was randomly shooting the falls themselves from different viewpoints when I happened to get a pretty lucky and interesting shot of this lone seagull on patrol over the falls. I didn't even realize I had captured it in the shot until I went back through the photos a few days later

    Jassen T./National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 6

    Incredibly beautiful and extremely remote. Koehn Lake, Mojave Desert, California. Aerial Image.

    Howard Singleton/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 7

    Lucky timing! The oxpecker was originally sitting on hippo's head. I could see the hippo was going into a huge yawn (threat display?) and the oxpecker had to vacate it's perch. When I snapped the pic, the oxpecker appeared on the verge of being inhaled and was perfectly positioned between the massive gaping jaws of the hippo. The oxpecker also appears to be screeching in terror and back-pedaling to avoid being a snack!

    Abrar Mohsin/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 8

    The Yetis of Nepal - The Aghoris as they are called are marked by colorful body paint and clothes

    Madeline Crowley/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 9

    Taken from a zodiac raft on a painfully cold, rainy day

    Ian Bird/National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

    National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest Entries

    Slide 10

    This wave is situated right near the CBD of Sydney. Some describe it as the most dangerous wave in Australia, due to it breaking on barnacle covered rocks only a few feet deep and only ten metres from the cliff face. If you fall off you could find yourself in a life and death situation. This photo was taken 300 feet directly above the wave from a helicopter, just as the surfer is pulling into the lip of the barrel.

  • Recent Slide Shows


Loading Comments...