Could robots take your job? How automation is changing the future of work

A precursor to our automated future sits quietly on Baldwin Street in Toronto’s bustling Kensington Market.

The RC Coffee Robo Cafe, which protrudes slightly from the brick wall near the sidewalk, bills itself as Canada’s first robotic cafe.

Unlike a vending machine brew that dispenses coffee from hand-filled urns, the robotic barista brews every cup of coffee, espresso, latte and more on demand, ready in moments.

For Jasmine Arnold, visiting Toronto from Providence, RI, iced matcha brewed at RC Coffee topped drinks dispensed from a vending machine and tied with coffee served at a chain.

While the drink went well, she told Global News the experience was unique if a bit shocking.

“I have mixed feelings about a robot, job-wise,” she said, expressing some unease about what that means for the prospects of human baristas.

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After trying his own robot drink, Arnold’s partner Eric echoed his sentiments, but noted that with the pandemic changing our expectations of what work can be done from where, it seemed to line up. about recent job changes.

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“Your delicious meal has arrived”: a robot among waiters at a restaurant in Winnipeg

“Your delicious meal has arrived”: Robot among Winnipeg restaurant servers – March 30, 2022

“I think that’s kind of where we’re going as a society,” he said.

Workforce changes driven by a tight job market and the COVID-19 pandemic are opening the door to faster adoption of automated solutions, but at least one expert warns Canada may be unprepared for the how quickly robotic workers are poised to transform the economy.

Robots in demand in tight labor markets

Statistics Canada said Friday that although Canada cut some 31,000 jobs in July, the country’s unemployment rate remained at an all-time low of 4.9% last month. The labor market is even hotter in the United States, with unemployment falling to 3.5% in July.

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This tight labor market in North America is driving increased interest in automated solutions, says Brad Ford, vice president of sales for KioCafé in Canada, the company that operates RC Coffee.

The company only had one RC Coffee kiosk in Toronto in the fall of 2020, which it started on an “experimental” basis, he recalls. But over the past two and a half years, it has expanded to five locations in the Greater Toronto Area, and three more are on the way.

Most of the stores are located in high traffic areas, but there is also a standalone RC Coffee kiosk at the Toronto General Hospital.

An RC Coffee Robo Cafe kiosk prepares cold drinks in the Toronto General Hospital food court.


Hospitals, universities and airports have been among Kio Cafe’s most interested customers, Ford says, as those locations have not been able to staff their cafes quickly enough to meet increased demand. due to pandemic recovery.

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“People have been knocking on our door trying to buy the equipment from us, especially in the US where they just can’t get the staff to open the sites,” he says.

Businesses in other industries are also increasingly embracing automation. Beyond simply installing self-checkout systems, grocers like Loblaw and Sobeys are turning to robotics to speed up execution. The company announced plans in June to open an automated fulfillment center in the GTA by early 2024.

The Association for Advancing Automation said orders for robots in the US workplace rose 40% in the first quarter of 2022. This followed a record year 2021 which saw a 28% increase in orders supplied by the non-automotive sectors.

An automated future accelerated by the pandemic

While it was “a coincidence” that RC Coffee offered a contactless experience just as the pandemic was beginning, Ford notes that this has also been an in-demand perk.

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The pace of automation has only been accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic, says Dan Ciuriak, senior researcher at the Center for International Governance Innovation in Waterloo, Ont.

He points to the 2020 Beijing Olympics (held in 2021), when China accelerated the development of contactless services to reduce opportunities for COVID transmission, as a hint of what to expect from our post-pandemic realities. .

“That’s exactly the world we’re entering now.”

When it comes to hospitals specifically, Ciuriak says there’s an opportunity to automate work beyond just the food court.

Amid a widely reported healthcare worker shortage, more than one in five Canadian nurses worked paid overtime in July, Statistics Canada reported Friday. Some 11.2 percent of nurses meanwhile were on sick leave for part of the week when the labor force survey was conducted.

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Ontario’s health system faces staffing shortages

Ontario’s health system faces staffing shortages

Ciuriak says there’s an opportunity for increasingly intelligent robots to support or even replace some nursing jobs as Canada’s aging population threatens to overwhelm an already stressed healthcare system.

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“It will be a boon and get us through this demographic transition,” he says.

This is largely what futurists — including Ciuriak, he notes — had long expected our automated future to look like: robots working side-by-side with humans, streamlining simple tasks and making us more productive.

But developments in artificial intelligence are seeing more powerful chips accelerating the pace of automation, he says. Whenever a machine outperforms a human in a knowledge-based domain, like Google’s DeepMind AI mastery failures, Ciuriak says we should consider the implications for work that we’ve long assumed is only for humans.

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“You are seeing a tremendous increase in the power of these networks. And this is reflected in the number of artificial intelligence systems that exceed human benchmarks. It is now a regular occurrence,” he says.

“We are on the cusp of a new era, and this is going to have massive implications for the labor market.”

Service sector jobs at risk

The service sector in particular is in the throes of disruption, Ciuriak says, and it’s not just entry-level positions that are at risk.

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He argues, for example, that the skills a person might acquire through years of investment and legal education could be widely replicated — and mass-produced — on a computer chip within the next decade.

When these services, usually constrained by human limitations, are expanded through automation, the implications for revenue generation and distribution will be immense. The owners of these machines would become new centers of concentration of wealth, he argues, warranting a shift in thinking about how we tax the products of this labor.

“We are embarking on a new type of economy that we are not prepared to regulate or manage,” Ciuriak says.

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While he doesn’t think RC Coffee Robo Cafes will ever replace the traditional barista or local cafe community vibe, Ford acknowledges that some “frontline” jobs could be at risk in our automated future.

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He argues, however, that the machines themselves are “job creators”. Each cafe requires an extensive development and maintenance team behind them, and the machines themselves require the same hardware inputs as your typical Starbucks or Tim Hortons.

By allowing more cafes to open today rather than closing due to a shortage of staff, Ford says java growers are able to maintain operations and maintain employment throughout the coffee supply chain.

“The more we can roll out these things and get good coffee there, I think that’s great for everyone.”

— with files from The Canadian Press

© 2022 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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