Robots also lack the kind of intelligence, manual dexterity, and people skills that any good cook, host, or server relies on to keep their diners happy. Can Peanut talk down a customer who’s irate because their eggs were fried instead of scrambled? Can it deftly plate a tuna tartare and avocado tower, and do a nice little sauce flourish around the edges? Can a robot hold back a chef who’s about to rampage because someone called their creations low-grade dog food? No way.
Even employing a simple robot like Peanut requires a sort of negotiation between machine and human coworkers. Basically: Stay in your lane, robot. “They don’t come in and blend well with us,” says Julie Carpenter, a research fellow in the Ethics and Emerging Sciences Group at California Polytechnic State University. “We’re negotiating how to work around them—they’re not smart enough to work around us. They’re not cooperative. They’re not collaborative. They just follow orders.”
Because of this interpersonal awkwardness, you can make a strong case that there are some jobs that we just don’t want robots to take on. Part of a nurse’s job, for instance, is comforting patients and working seamlessly with other medical personnel, while a robot is devoid of such empathy and collaborative skill. A cop navigates an extremely sensitive emotional landscape—robots can’t even do simple security patrols without getting into trouble. In April, the New York Police Department canceled a program with Boston Dynamics’ robot dog Spot, following public concerns about the militarization of the police. Also known as the “Digidog,” it was intended for use in hostage and reconnaissance situations.
Plus, the restaurants and bars that we humans so enjoy are in fact absolute nightmares for mobile machines like Peanut. Roboticists call this kind of space an “unstructured” environment, in which a robot has to navigate all sorts of chaos, like chairs, spills, and wandering toddlers. This is in contrast to a “structured” environment like a factory, in which a fixed robotic arm does repetitive work. Robots are great at that—doing the heavy lifting, riveting, or welding over and over and over in a space with no surprises.
Yet even on an automotive assembly line—the very best environment for a robot to work in—machines complement human labor. Robots do the grunt work, and humans do the fine manipulation, like detail work in a car’s interior. If robots could do everything in a factory, humans could shut off the lights, go home, and let the machines churn out vehicles in the dark.
“Trying to automate a process from soup to nuts, it’s just a lot harder than dividing the labor and finding places where the humans can play to their strengths, and the machines play to their strengths,” says Erik Brynjolfsson, director of the Digital Economy Lab at Stanford University. (For robots, that’s literal strength, plus their ability to handle repetitive tasks with extreme consistency. Humans are better at virtually everything else.) “If you have that kind of division of labor,” Brynjolfsson continues, “you’re probably going to have a more nimble assembly line, more overall productivity, and more ability to be flexible.”
So in an economic moment like this one, when businesses are suddenly ramping up their hiring, they can’t just mechanize what turn out to be extremely complex jobs. Peanut is a rarity, and it can still only move food and dirty dishes from point A to point B.
In fact, the primitiveness of robots makes a strong case for the value of human labor. Right now businesses are clamoring for that labor—and there isn’t enough, which should be good for workers. “It means workers could be choosier, looking presumably for higher pay, but also for better working conditions,” says Dean Baker, a senior economist at the Center for Economic and Policy Research, a nonprofit think tank. “So if there’s a place where the manager is known to be a real jerk or something, they’re not going to feel they have to take that, because they could get by on unemployment benefits for a period of time, and then get a job that looks better to them.”