Inside the hotel lobby of Aloft Cupertino, a 3-foot-tall robot sits at a charging station, waiting for a task. Just as a guest calls the front desk for extra towels, the concierge enters the room number onto the robot touchscreen, opens its lid, and places the items inside. Within minutes, the robot, named Relay, arrives at the guest's front door, and then returns for the next task.
Relay doesn't work at just Aloft; 12 other California hotels pay a subscription fee for their own robotic butlers--all made by Savioke, the creator and manufacturer. Founded in 2013 by Dr. Steve Cousins, Savioke raised $17.5 million in VC funding from such investors as Intel Capital, Google Ventures, and EDBI (Singapore's investment arm that it betting robots can help the country get through its labor shortage). Soon, another dozen hotels across California will be using Relay. Cousins also hopes to expand into other industries, including hospitals, elder care, and last-mile delivery.
Before Savioke, Cousins was tapped by Scott Hassan, to serve as CEO of his robotics research lab, Willow Garage. (Hassan had written the original code for Google's search engine, and made millions from his early stake in the company.) At Willow Garage, Cousins helped create the Robot Operating System (ROS), an open source software that has become the standard system for robots (think Windows, but for robots). He also helped create the PR2, a personal robot platform outfitted with cameras, sensors, arms, and wheels.
The rapid rise of advanced technology has caused deep uncertainty about the future of the job market. But many within the field aren't worried. Melonee Wise, founder of Fetch Robotics and Willow Garage alum, says we shouldn't rush to blame the bots. "Your computer doesn't un-employ you, your robot doesn't un-employ you. The companies that have those technologies make the social policies and set those social policies that change the workforce," she said. "[Utilizing robots is] about increasing productivity, not decreasing headcount."
Cousins tells Inc. that technology--specifically, automation and robotics--has actually improved our lives. "Some people will be left behind," he says. "But the big picture is that the world doesn't get worse as technology advances, it gets better. Some people will be displaced, but there will be more net jobs."
A 2015 study by Deloitte looked at the relationship between jobs and technology by from 1871 to 2011. Labor intensive and dangerous jobs are lost to technology, according to data. At the same time, jobs in nursing and medicine, education, government, knowledge-based industries, and professional services have increased significantly. In total, the study concluded that technology creates more jobs than it destroys.
As wage inequality continues to grow in the U.S., where the top 10 percent make 48 percent of the nation's annual income and the top 0.1 makes nearly 9 percent, the gap between rich and poor is vast. Some experts say blaming automation for wage inequality is Luddite-doom-and-gloom propaganda, while others say advancements in technology does play a role.
Erik Brynjolfsson, a professor of management at MIT's Sloan School, and co-author Andrew McAfee argue in their book, The Second Machine Age, that technology is the "main driver of the recent increases in inequality."
The fact is that fewer people are working. Wages are stagnant or falling. Productivity and profits are higher than ever. According to Five Thirty Eight, U.S. manufacturers are producing more things with fewer employees because of automation.
A recent report by Forrester, reveals a bleak future: In five years, robots will eliminate 6 percent of jobs done by humans. "By 2021 a disruptive tidal wave will begin," writes analyst Brian Hopkins in the report. "Solutions powered by AI/cognitive technology will displace jobs, with the biggest impact felt in transportation, logistics, customer service, and consumer services."
Cousins admits that there will be some displacement as more robots enter the workforce, but he disagrees with Forrester's theory that net jobs will decrease as robots enter the workforce. "Robots are job creators," he said.
But it's the types of jobs that are constantly changing. Thanks to technology, most of us will never have to plow a field. "The nature of work is always changing, and as a society we have to understand that technology is accelerating very fast," said Cousins.
While many still remain are nostalgic, Cousins full-heartedly believes technology makes life better while also increasing wealth. As a country, he says, we must focus on improving our education system in a way that helps people learn new skills for an evolving world.
"When you change the world, the problem is that the world changes," says Cousins. "Some people are left behind. We need a system in place so when you are left behind you can see what you can do next and how you get to the next step."
Victoria Ramirez, who works at the front desk at the Holiday Inn Express in Redwood City, California, says Relay the robot is already part of the team. "He might be a robot to everyone else, but he is a huge help and makes our jobs better," she says.
Every morning, Relay takes the elevator to the second floor and parks himself near the breakfast area. As guests walk by, he introduces himself and reminds them to call the front desk if assistance is needed. He returns to the lobby at noon and waits for tasks to be assigned to him. As he kills time, he'll twirl around, open his lid, and tell jokes.
When asked if Ramirez is worried that robots will steal her job, she replies," No--not yet, at least."