Since ChatGPT was introduced last fall, people have been worried about the impact of artificial intelligence and other forms of automation on the job market. The notion that “robots are taking our jobs” was further fueled by videos showing “fully automated” fast-food restaurants, including McDonald’s and Taco Bell. But while these robots and AI tools may look advanced, they are actually changing the way we work and the types of jobs available, rather than eliminating them.
The Robots Behind the Scenes
The rise of automation technology has created a whole new world of “secret” workers who are hidden behind screens, machines, and robot faces. These robots and chatbots are not replacing human workers, but instead keeping them out of sight and out of mind. This may be good for companies, but it’s not a great deal for employees.
The Misleading Narrative of Automation
People love to point to videos of robots handling mundane tasks as evidence that AI is coming for our jobs. For example, the McDonald’s video shows a machine delivering food at the drive-thru, self-ordering kiosks, and a lack of human staff at the order counter. Similarly, at Taco Bell there are automated drive-thru lanes.
Robots are also being used in coffee shops, for food delivery, and for cleaning floors. Meanwhile, AI tools like ChatGPT have been used to write articles and take college exams.
But these videos and stories often lack crucial context. The futuristic McDonald’s is actually an experimental concept store outside of Fort Worth, Texas, aimed at improving service speed and accuracy by separating workers and customers.
While the video may give the impression of a fully automated store, there are still human workers behind the scenes. And despite the lack of human workers in the front of the store, Taco Bell still employs people in the kitchen.
It’s not the first time we’ve seen a “robot takeover” scare. Just a decade ago, similar fears were fueled by new technology advancements. A 2014 analysis predicted that automation would eliminate 47% of jobs by 2034, with self-driving technology set to replace human taxi and delivery drivers and long-haul truckers.
However, these predictions never came to fruition. Truck drivers are still in high demand, and self-driving technology has not replaced human jobs. In fact, a 2020 report from the World Economic Forum estimated that while 85 million jobs would be replaced by machines by 2025, 97 million new jobs would be created to support the new economy.
The Human Element in AI and Automation
Amid all the fear-mongering about robots taking over, it’s easy to forget that machines still require human workers to function. Take customer service, for example. For years, businesses have been trying to cut costs by replacing human customer service calls with chat-based, automated bots.
But many of these text-based tools still rely on human backups in complex situations and to make customers feel like they are talking to a real person.
Laura Preston wrote about her experience working as a “human fallback” for a real-estate chatbot called Brenda. When a customer wanted to speak to someone about an apartment listing, they were connected with Brenda, who could answer basic questions about the listing or give details on the apartment itself.
But when the customer had more complex questions, a human fallback would step in. The human worker would then take over the conversation and try to help the client, cleaning up Brenda’s answers or doing deeper research. Human workers were trained to use Brenda’s “