How Autonomous Food Delivery Could Hurt Workers

The robots are coming

Key Takeaways

  • Grubhub and Yandex announced a partnership that will offer autonomous food delivery services to select US college campuses.
  • The deliveries are set to launch this fall, but will likely be limited to areas with higher levels of walkability.
  • Experts say the automation of jobs is unavoidable, but there are things workers and companies can do to ensure the coming changes are good for humans.
A humanoid robot with a shopping trolley is shopping at a grocery store

Julia Garan / Getty Images

In a move that proves the future is here whether you like it or not, Grubhub and Yandex have announced a partnership to provide autonomous food delivery to select college campuses this fall. In an uncertain economy, though, the shift has left some workers wondering where they stand.

Automation is nothing new, but it’s certainly a trend humans should be wary of. A 2019 report from the Brookings Institution cautioned that industries considered to be at high risk for automation—including production, food service, and transportation—amounted to around 25% of all jobs in the US. Men, youth, and workers from under-represented groups are expected to be the demographics most impacted by automation, according to the report.

Despite those risks, experts say there’s still time to turn things around and make sure automation works for us, rather than against us.

"Automated delivery is actually quite challenging on a number of levels. It’s also going to take a while for this technology to be more cost-efficient than humans, I suspect, giving some time for people to find alternative employment options," Amarita Natt, managing director at EconOne Research, told Lifewire in an email interview. 

The Unavoidable Future

As technology continues to advance and tools like AI are increasingly used in everyday tasks, an automation revolution is coming whether we want it or not—and it will extend way beyond gig work.

Although some economists have identified technology as a factor in the strange phenomenon sometimes dubbed "the great decoupling"—economic growth with stagnant employment in the years following World War II—experts say there’s no way to avoid the coming automation of jobs across many industries.

"It’s hard to say if [automation] is good or bad. One thing is for sure though, and that is that it is happening."

"I think [the Grubhub/Yandex partnership] is part of an overall larger push to try and automate everything, really," Natt said. "I don’t know if [automation] is particularly specific to the gig economy. We’ve been systematizing and creating large-scale processes basically since the industrial revolution. Automation is just the current incarnation of that—what can we offload to machines to free up humans for the things that machines can’t do yet?"

Moving Ahead

"It’s hard to say if [automation] is good or bad. One thing is for sure though, and that is that it is happening," Shuili Du, an associate professor of marketing at the Peter T. Paul College of Business and Economics at the University of New Hampshire, told Lifewire in a phone interview.

Du said companies often pursue automation due to its low costs, high efficiency, continuous improvements, and the potential for greater profits, despite the risks of layoffs.

Although some studies suggest a variety of jobs are at risk of being automated moving forward, Du said she sees more gig opportunities and freelance work in the future for humans, as well as more emphasis on developing critical thinking abilities and other high-level skills.

Interior of a third wave coffee shop with robot barista.

imaginima / Getty Images

Du also believes there will be opportunities for new and different kinds of jobs to emerge.

"I think some jobs or tasks will be eliminated, but there will be more jobs that will come as the whole economy is transforming," Du said, explaining that the job of a social media manager would have been unforeseeable a century ago but is now common.

Still, Du said the mismatch between employees' skills and the needs of the economy could present challenges.

One solution, according to Du, is for workers to "re-skill," focusing on learning new skills to stay ahead of the curve as the economy evolves. From a social responsibility perspective, Du added that companies should assist employees in re-skilling as much as possible.

Humans Resources

Although robots are inevitably coming for some of our jobs, experts say humans will always be a necessary part of the workforce.

"I’d like to hope that automation frees up humans to be inventive and imaginative—I keep coming back to this idea that machines will replace tasks but not necessarily jobs," Natt said.

"I think some jobs or tasks will be eliminated, but there will be more jobs that will come as the whole economy is transforming."

Du held a similar position, noting it will be important for humans in the future to rely on the social and emotional qualities that set them apart from robots, like critical thinking, soft skills, and compassionate caretaking.

"We are at the very beginning of the AI mediated economy in robotics, automation, and so on, so we can change a lot of the dynamics…" Du said. "We can transform and shape the future of the economy and try to make sure that [it] is more good than bad."

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