I was on the road a while back and needed to stop to use the facilities. A chain restaurant on the side of the highway seemed like a reasonable spot. As I headed to the men’s room I noticed iPads on all the tables. These are the new electronic menus. They don’t replace wait staff, but they do make the whole process of ordering food more efficient with a likely reduction in the overall number of humans needed to do the same amount of work. And there are all the other benefits that come with data mining and systems optimization. The global supply chain managers must love it.
Here’s a multiplex movie theater with a generous supply of self serve ticketing machines. Swipe your card, touch a few icons on a screen, and presto!
Here’s the automated check out cluster at the big box store. Six or eight self serve machines are now overseen by a single human attendant.
CafeX is beta testing a robotic barista. Here’s where high tech and high touch converge on the masses.
Humans are agressively being eliminated from as many business models as possible. The early adopters will be the largest companies with the most to gain from improvements in efficiency. Over the next few years we’ll see fewer and fewer people behind the counters. There will always be a need for someone to wipe down the tables, mop the floors, and take out the trash so a few minimum wage level positions will linger on. And there will need to be slightly better trained folks to manage the machines. But the overall level of employment in the service economy will consistently contract.
At the other end of the spectrum I enjoyed lunch at an upscale restaurant. The entree consisted of delicately prepared seasonal wild foraged mushrooms served with local organic mixed greens and “moss” which the attentive wait staff explained was sponge cake infused with pureed parsley. The dish was called The Forest. It was delicious. $80. Spot the difference?
Agriculture was mechanized a century ago and the population migrated away from small farm towns to big industrial cities where factory jobs were plentiful.
Industrial cities crested and then were depopulated as factories were sent elsewhere and people moved on to the suburbs to participate in the post industrial service economy.
We’re now seeing the next wave of creative destruction transforming society. We don’t yet know how it will end. At the moment it looks like people with the skills to create and manage complex systems or build and maintain computer guided equipment will do pretty well. So what about everyone else?
This isn’t a technical problem. It’s a cultural and political conundrum. Americans aren’t big fans of taxing the rich and redistributing the money to the folks lower down the food chain. We tend to think of that as social engineering and Godless communism. My best guess is that we’re not going to resolve these challenges in any intentional comprehensive logical manner. At least not at first. Instead circumstances are going to overwhelm us until enough of the population is miserable enough to demand real change. That’s been the historical model and it tends to be messy. Big fun.