"Dealing with humans is a very complex task. It takes us as humans many years to grow up and learn all the social etiquette and cues," says Joel Burdick, a professor of mechanical engineering who specializes in robotics at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena. It will take time to perfect robots capable of understanding human emotions well enough to please people in service roles, says Dr. Burdick.
And, though he expects that robots will have a substantial impact on the service industry, he says that in some cases humans will simply always want to interact with other humans.
But robots have already started their march into the service industry. Though they might not look like robots, automated checkout lines at grocery stores or touch-screen check-in kiosks at airports are the tip of the service industry's robotic revolution.
Already at the hospital
Autonomous mobile robots are starting to appear, as well. In more than 100 hospitals across the US, nurses receive help from robotic "tugs" that tow carts that deliver everything from meals to linens.
Once loaded and given a destination, they can drive through crowded hallways, steering around obstacles and stopping if someone unexpectedly steps in front. If it reaches an impasse, such as a wayward gurney, it automatically calls a help desk, where a technician steers around the obstruction or calls the hospital to ask someone to move the roadblock.