Will human beings become a luxury good as robots take over work?

On the endangered list
On the endangered list
Image: Reuters/Rick Wilking
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As more ATMs take over for bank tellers and self-checkout lines replace more cashiers, services provided by human beings will one day become the exclusive preserve of the rich, according to a report on the future of jobs from Pew Research Center. It envisions a future just 10 years from now, in which robots will stock shelves, bag groceries, and make deliveries; automation will replace people who now serve as customer-service agents, sales representatives and custodians.

But if future consumers are prepared to pay enough, they will still be served by real people.

“Live, human salespeople, nurses, doctors, actors will be symbols of luxury, the silk of human interaction as opposed to the polyester of simulated human contact,” the report quotes Judith Donath, a fellow at Harvard University’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society, as saying.

Already, plenty of people are unsatisfied with having to interact exclusively with technology. Take the popularity of GetHuman and other services designed to bypass automated menus and software interactions: we still believe that humans have the best solutions to many of our problems. But if Donath’s prediction is right, that kind of interaction will only be affordable for those with deep pockets. Frustratingly, the report doesn’t speculate about what kind of premium pricing human service would command.

That’s only part of the story. As the Pew report notes, 48% of experts expect significant job displacement from technology, particularly among blue- and white-collar workers, by 2025. A slight majority, 52%, are more hopeful; they think that more jobs will be created by technology than it destroys.

As it happens, the Bureau of Labor Statistics is a bit more confident about the future of the service industry; it expects a 10% increase in the number of customer service representatives by 2022 from its 2012 numbers. The number of bank tellers, listed among the endangered employment in the Pew report, isn’t projected to grow during that time—but neither is it projected to shrink. And the grocery store cashier, thought to be imperiled by self-checkout? Their numbers are projected to grow by 86,000 people, or 2%, by 2022.

Whose vision will play out more accurately: the Bureau’s, or Pew’s? Only time will tell. (Perhaps in the future, clichés will be automated, too.)