THX-1138, 1971 [Photo: Everett Collection]

This Is What It Feels Like When A Robot Takes Your Job

Almost half of U.S. jobs may one day be automated. For some employees who worked at a free on-demand concierge, that day came last month.


For about a year, Sam Fox-Hartin had worked for an on-demand concierge startup called GoButler as a “Hero,” the company’s term for employees who field users’ requests, via text message, and then complete tasks such as booking tables at restaurants, scheduling appointments, or ordering food for delivery on their behalf. Most of these tasks, like the ones I watched Fox-Hartin maneuver when GoButler invited me to visit its New York headquarters last year, were fairly routine. But he also wrote poems. Convinced couriers to deliver dry ice. And in response to one particularly odd request, drew “some horses hanging around a campfire.” As a comedy writer and former philosophy major, he brought creative enthusiasm to the job. “I’m by no means a gifted visual artist,” he says of the horse drawing, “but I tried my best.”

In late February, he learned he was about to be replaced by an algorithm that he’d unwittingly helped build.

GoButler’s CFO called Fox-Hartin at home to tell him the news (he wasn’t at work on the day the announcement was made). The company had decided to move to “a more automated product,” he said. Instead of offering an “everything and anything” service, GoButler would reinvent itself as a fully automated discovery and booking tool. The first category would be air travel, and Priceline would pay GoButler a fee for every ticket it sold. GoButler no longer needed heroes, or Fox-Hartin.

Nowhere is the potential for job automation so obvious as it is in the on-demand economy, where many startups have grown fat with venture capital despite poor unit-economics. Uber is spending heavily to hasten the development of driverless cars. Instacart, Postmates, and other delivery-heavy startups are unlikely to stick with humans once machines — which don’t take sick days, need bathroom breaks, or threaten to unionize — can do the same jobs.

But even if you don’t work in the on-demand economy, chances are high that you or someone you know will eventually be in the same position as Fox-Hartin.

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