The unusual nature of the job lends it some cachet, despite the mundane nature of the work itself. (Job requirements posted by the driverless-car start-up Cruise Automation include: “Able to drive or spend time sitting in a car for six to eight hours a day.”) “I’ll tell my grandkids someday!” Reeves told me. The pay is good, too. Starship Technologies starts its robot handlers at $15 an hour, and Cruise pays $23 an hour, more than double California’s minimum wage of $11. Still, many of these above-minimum-wage jobs aren’t likely to be around for too much longer.
Broadly speaking, robot-babysitting jobs fall under the umbrella of careers in automation, which include maintenance, engineering, and programming. The demand for people with this skill set is considerable, with an expected 20 million to 50 million new jobs expected in this category by 2030, according to the McKinsey Global Institute. In the year that ended in June 2018, the number of postings on Indeed.com’s recruitment boards advertising positions in automation had almost tripled since the year ending in June 2016.
Automation workers include computer scientists, IT workers, and administrators. “Those people are in scarcity, and there’s an extreme demand,” Mike Ramsey, a research director at Gartner, said. But they also include less skilled workers—college students, like Reeves, or others without a degree. As autonomous technology gets more sophisticated, Ramsey expects to see a bifurcation of demand for these robot-keepers. Even as demand increases more technical roles—AI analysts, systems testers, and vehicle technicians—advances in tech and loosening legislation will lessen the need for blue-collar robot roles, like Reeves’ job with Starship Technologies. “We are in this squishy period where the human has to be heavily involved in testing, and that is likely to end,” Ramsey said.
What interacting with robots might reveal about human nature
In some cases, companies have already managed to get rid of their robot babysitters. Over the last year, a 34-year-old entrepreneur named David Rodriguez spent hundreds of hours following a machine called the KiwiBot around UC Berkeley’s campus while it delivered Soylent, Chipotle, and Red Bull to students.
Created in 2017 by a group of Colombian entrepreneurs at Launch, an accelerator program based at Berkeley, the KiwiBot exhibits Pixar-like sensibilities. To retrieve orders, the app prompts students to give the robot a thumbs-up or a wave; the bot’s digital eyes will wink or roll depending on its mood. Rodriguez, who heads business development for the start-up, was tasked, early on, with monitoring the KiwiBot for problems—even carrying it, should the motors fail. Since April 2018, though, the KiwiBot has been largely babysitter-free, and the majority of human interactions involve technical checks and loading food into the bot. To eliminate that grunt work, the team is developing a restaurant robot to collect and load orders—which could happen as soon as 2019. However, Rodriguez assured me that his staff won’t be out of work. Everyone holds dual roles in the company; greater bot autonomy just means employees will shift their focus to accounting, engineering, and design.