Job of the future is a Courier. Not a Data Scientist.

This is not a usual TEDTalk you’d like to hear. The predictions of futurologists regarding future professions are very beautiful and inspiring, but let’s look at our future from a more skeptical angle.

One thing you can be sure about is that mass consumption habits and everything around it have already changed. Instant delivery services will stay with us for a long time. The situation with Covid-19 only spurred mass adoption of such services. The US is lagging behind other developed countries, but by 2025 it is predicted that up to a quarter of the grocery retail orders will be fulfilled online.

At the same time, for some reason, everyone ignores the “elephant in the room”, or rather the “gray rhino”, — the economy of new instant delivery services does not work. I’m not even saying that the idea of hauling burritos in a two-ton car is pure madness.

Even relying on bike couriers for local grocery deliveries is an inefficient use of human labor.

The personal courier who goes shopping and brings me food is a shared servant from the 19th century, but not the future I really want. High tech, low life. Hello Cyberpunk, please, stay in video games.

Did we dream of such a society, was that the promise of futurologists? Technology was supposed to free up people’s time, and not become a new means of oppressing some over others. Technology should free us from the 4D work of Dull, Dirty, Dangerous, and Dear, instead of giving a rise to to more professions of this kind.

Now let’s evaluate the level of complexity of implementing robotics and AI among the most popular professions. Again, we will use the statistics for the USA, since most of the data comes from the Bureau of Labor.

A retail salesperson, cashier, taxi driver, nurse, waiter, bartender. Couriers have slipped out of the statistics because they don’t sign a regular job contract. But the reporting of delivery services reveals fairly accurate numbers.

We can immediately discard those professions that are associated with social intelligence (for example, a sales assistant), since the level of AI is not yet at the level to imitate human communication. We can also discard professions requiring phenomenal technological complexity, as it turns out.

Let’s take household chores. I can’t imagine a robot that even makes my bed, makes dishes, and cleans up dog poop without smearing it all over the floor. The cost of such a robot will skyrocket, and in some cases it will be impossible to manufacture.

Try to teach a manipulator of this sort to put dirty dishes, who knows of what shape, into the dishwasher without breaking anything. For this kind of manipulation alone there have been advanced competitions held and new control methods have been explored for several years.

In some cases, we are really making progress, although it is much slowlier than the claimed level. Robot-vacuums really do help with dust if you’re in the habit of not throwing anything on the floor. Self-driving cars are already rolling around our streets. Yes, their cost is still high, unpredictable traffic situations drive them into a dead end, and overpromises from top leaders are disappointing. Our icon, Elon, has been promising that “full autonomy will be ready this year” for 5 years in a row with the same wording.

Here come delivery robots. The explosion of instant delivery has already skyrocketed the demand for couriers, and it’s only going to get worse (or better, depending on which side you’re on). What is the job of a courier? Pick up the delivery, cruising around town, call client and go up to the floor, if necessary. And I did not find any of the critical technological problems, why this cannot be automated now. Unless stairs, non-automatic doors and elevators can be a problem at this stage of integration with the infrastructure. Many insiders (delivery startups both robotics and conventional) told me that even now they can technically perform up to 80% of all retail deliveries with a robot!

Those who have reached this part may object that the autonomous robot is still expensive (sometimes it even includes lidar)! Here I have two arguments. Firstly, lidars are getting cheaper so we need to consider their cost in 2–4 years. Secondly, for limited autonomy, the problem can be solved using stereo cameras, computer vision and sometimes deep-learning algorithms (aka end-to-end approach), which significantly reduces the cost of the stack. Yes, this is not a trivial task and the only company that has done it so far is Starship.

My prediction is that new instant delivery services will not be able to provide the same level of service. Either they will focus on something more modest like interval delivery (see Amazon), or they will revise their valuation to investors (see Instacart). Only those who invested/collaborated/piloted robotics solutions already will be able to provide a new level of service and remain viable from a business point of view. Mass reduction of human-labored instant deliveries only proves my assumptions.

What can you do now and how does it affect you? For roboticists, I encourage you to be realistic about your next project. For municipalities — the speedy development of legislation and infrastructure for courier robots. After all, it is your task to provide a framework for implementing technologies in life, and not to let it unfold on its own, as was the case with electric scooters. For investors — look for your investment champion. For instant delivery companies, test your business model on a scale, without the crazy assumption that one courier will make up to 5 deliveries per hour.

Yes, the title is a little bit of clickbait. But if you are still looking seriously for an answer, then a lot of the professions will involve robotics. From mechanical and electronics specialist to ML and back-end developer with experience in robotics.

The favourite argument of those pessimistic about the future about tmass unemployment is not valid. Technologies are being adopted rather slowly and the demand for personnel outstrips supply in many ways. By the time robots will be (are) ubiquitous, relatively unskilled workers will already be in demand in other areas. Not to mention what new professions we will have: robot fleet manager, teleoperator, maintenance mechanic, and so on.

I wrote this article before the infamous conflict that rocked the global economy. And although this led to a correction of robotization plans for a couple of years, I am convinced that the mainstream of development will go in this direction. Delivery will also remain in demand and the first candidate for robotization.

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Mike Melanin

Mike Melanin

Young Entrepreneur of the Year 2017 by E&Y Russia • Founder & CEO nopilot.ai • Founder ​statsbot.co​​ • 500 alumni • Robotics at ​Bauman University​ •