AI-powered robotics will fuel jobs disruptions in ways we don’t realize – Yahoo! Voices

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The Scene

Wellness startup Aescape’s pending launch of AI-powered robotic masseuses is one of the unexpected ways the technology could disrupt the labor market.

Founder Eric Litman has raised $80 million to develop “the first commercially available fully automated, customizable massage experience to give people more control of their self-care.” New York-based Aescape is partnering with 10 Equinox gyms for the rollout, with a half-hour session costing $60.

The machine looks like something you might see on the Starship Enterprise. It uses infrared scanners to map your body and sensors in the robotic hands to determine the pressure and motion of the arms.

With a target market of hotels, spas, and gyms, the robotic masseuses could put human ones out of work. Litman is quick to point out that there are currently 30,000 open masseuse jobs in the U.S. and that number is likely to go up.

Alastair’s view

I tried out the pre-release version of the robotic masseuse last week. My biggest concern getting on the massage table was that my experience would be more “Black Mirror” than “Star Trek.” Litman assured me that the arms don’t have enough strength to cause any damage, and having experienced the machine at its maximum pressure, I believe him.

I’m a 6-foot-5 former endurance athlete and have chronic back issues, so I wasn’t expecting to be wowed by the experience. I spent 30 minutes on the table and — other than the three times an engineer had to come in to reboot the tablet interface for the robot — it was very enjoyable.

But the experience did raise some bigger questions about the effect of robotic products on our lives. One of the purposes of getting a therapeutic massage is that a professional will evaluate you and, over time, develop a relationship with you. Masseuses, yogis, personal trainers, and chiropractors occupy a similar place in my brain — I’ve learned a lot from people in those jobs, and their knowledge, more than their physical services, has improved my wellness.

The idea of creating a device that has the potential to replace one of those roles is scary. Aescape even has a return-on-investment calculator on its site, if you’re looking for unit economics on renting their machines for your business.

In the end, I was pleasantly surprised, but I’m not ditching human masseuses just yet.

Reed’s view

When Aescape emailed me about a demo in Manhattan (I live in the Bay Area), I forwarded the invitation to my New York colleagues. Alastair was the only taker. That was about a month ago and I had completely forgotten about it.

When Alastair sent me a note earlier this week about how it went, I was shocked and the experience made me think about the automation revolution that is just beginning.

As Alastair pointed out, this has potentially dire implications for masseuses, who could be replaced by robotic arms. But then, what happens when a therapeutic massage is accessible to the masses? Will it enable people with back and muscle issues to remain more active, thus living healthier lives?

That’s probably a matter of debate, but the point is that with each new AI-enabled tool, the ripple effects reach far beyond a single profession.

The only thing I’m absolutely sure about is that, thanks to automation, the world is going to change drastically over the next five to 10 years in ways we cannot imagine.

Giant foundation models like GPT-4 have hit an inflection point and investment dollars are pouring in. But it’s the investments you don’t publicly see that are the most impactful right now. Those are going into the infrastructure layer of AI. Semiconductors are part of that, but it goes so much further. At every point in the technology stack, teams of engineers are focusing on solving every little bottleneck. There is money to be made in clearing the way for AI innovation.

And something similar is happening in robotics. Robots today are somewhat rigid. They can be trained for specific tasks and useful in controlled environments. But researchers are figuring out how to train them in a way that’s similar to large language models, throwing enormous datasets at them and letting them learn on their own so that they can become more useful for general purposes. These two worlds of AI — the software and hardware — are colliding in ways that will likely lead to exponential growth in capability.

We often ask whether these nascent technologies will take human jobs. There’s not really any doubt that will happen.

But it will also create new ones, and even more importantly, it may change the concept of work itself.

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