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Robots set to overhaul service industry, jobs

In the next decade, robots will increasingly take over low-level jobs, experts say, displacing human employees.

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Like many robotics companies, Aethon, the Pittsburgh-based robotics company that makes the tug, has targeted an industry riddled by staffing shortages. Instead of eliminating jobs, tugs alleviate strain on nurses and clinicians already spread thin, says Aldo Zini, president and CEO of Aethon.

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"If I'm an administrator of a hospital, the last thing I want my nurses to do [is] push a cart down the hall or pick up [dirty dishes] or go downstairs to fetch a chart. I want those clinicians doing what they're trained to do, and that's providing patient care," says Mr. Zini.

Other companies hope to automate farm equipment to help with agricultural labor shortages, which some analysts say may worsen if immigration constraints tighten.

Still, it's only a matter of time before droids like the tug enter job markets where they will be competing directly with humans. At least one major hotel chain has contacted Aethon to inquire about using the tug for room service. Though the Pittsburgh company has elected to focus on hospitals for now, hotel owners could conceivably hire a call center in India to handle all room service orders and e-mail them to the kitchen staff, who would then load them onto a tug for delivery.

"If I were in the service industry, I wouldn't worry about losing my job tomorrow because of robotics," says Burdick. "But certainly, if I were at the low end of the service industry, I would be worried about, over time, could my job either be outsourced to India or China or replaced by more autonomy, whether it's a physical robot or a complex computer software system."

Though millions of jobs in the service sector are at stake, experts say the change should come gradually enough to create a natural shift in the workforce.

New lines of work

In many ways, introducing robots in the service industry might be comparable to the time when personal computers entered the office space, eliminating many basic bookkeeping and accounting jobs, says John Wen, a director of the Center for Automation Technologies and Systems at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, N.Y.

"A lot of people that we needed 20 years ago are no longer needed," says Dr. Wen. "However, [the personal computer] has spawned another huge industry – and I see robots doing exactly the same thing."

Wen believes that, while designing robots from scratch will always require an advanced degree, eventually programming preexisting robots could become as easy as designing a webpage, making it possible for people with a high school degree to work with robots.

"It's easy to say, 'The robots are taking over,' " says Julian Alssid, executive director of Workforce Strategy Center, a nonprofit organization in New York that works to create a globally competitive workforce in the US. "But it's all just so much more about an evolution."