Robots holding platters of plantains and shrimp zoom between tables at Sergio's, a Cuban restaurant in Miami, where the waist-high machines use artificial intelligence to evade strollers, toddlers and even each other.
The restaurant brought in the androids after the pandemic struck, said Carlos Gazuita, the CEO of the chain restaurant.
People had flocked to Florida, bringing a surge of customers. Waiters though quickly suffered burn out, he said. Sergio's was struggling to retain staff while an infection could leave Gazuita short a server for as long as two weeks. He said he had to close off sections of some restaurants.
"It was out of desperation," he said.
The extra help has allowed Gazuita to cut wait staff by as much as 20%, while lightening the load for waiters relieved of carrying food and dishes, he said. The move has also delivered savings, he added, since the robots cost about $2 per hour.
Gazuita said he hopes to add more robots, eventually supplementing dishwashers. He acknowledged, however, the anxiety among some staffers that AI could take away much-needed jobs.
"Could you lose jobs? Maybe," he said. "But could you pay more to the employees? The balance might overall help people," he said.
Sergio's is hardly alone. Coinciding with the tightest U.S. job market in more than a half century, business adoption of AI surged during the pandemic but did not cause job losses, experts told ABC News. While data on the scale of displacement remains limited, they said, anecdotes confirm that the technology cut some positions while creating others.
Still, AI is expected to displace more and more jobs going forward, they added, citing buzzy language bot ChatGPT as a breakthrough that could threaten even white-collar positions. AI will enhance productivity and increase compensation for some jobs but it risks leaving out workers who fail to keep up, they said.
"We've seen an increase in AI-related displacement and redefinition of work accelerated during COVID," Anu Madgavkar, the head of labor market research at the McKinsey Global Institute, told ABC News. "We would expect this to rise going forward."
"The shift in the demand for work into higher-paid, better-skilled jobs could result in inequality," she added.
So far, however, AI has fallen short of the disruptive, job-killing force that some observers feared, David Autor, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who specializes in technological change and the labor force, told ABC News.
He pointed to the near-historic tightness of the job market. Jobs are plentiful despite high-profile layoffs at companies like Amazon, Microsoft, Twitter and Goldman Sachs. Last month, the unemployment rate fell to 3.4%, the lowest figure since 1969.
As of December, the U.S. economy had 11 million unfilled job openings, government data showed.
"I don't think there's been a lot of job displacement yet," Autor said. "There's evidence firms are starting to do that. In aggregate, I haven't seen any direct evidence that it comes to a lot or is even detectable at this point."
The lack of significant job losses owes to a delay between the discovery of a technology and its effect on the way businesses operate and employees work, he said. The technology needs to advance far enough to reliably improve production, he added, noting that the sector where its impact has been most pronounced -- tech -- employs relatively few workers.
"There's usually quite a lag between when a technology exists in the lab and when it has a very big effect on the way that we work," he said.
But the pandemic turbocharged the adoption of AI, said Madgavkar of the Mckinsey Global Institute.
Companies were forced to adapt to the disruption brought about by health fears, social distancing and supply chain bottlenecks.
"Because of COVID, where you had all sorts of constraints around delivering work in the traditional way, companies and employers got focused on how you automate," she said.
Artificial intelligence could displace roughly 15% of workers, or 400 million people, worldwide between 2016 and 2030, according to a McKinsey study. In a scenario of wide AI adoption, the share of jobs displaced could rise to as much as 30%, the firm found.
While such dire predictions haven't materialized yet, the technology poses an imminent threat to the prevalence of accessible, high-quality jobs, said Autor. As AI heightens the demand for workers with advanced training and skills, he added, the technology risks creating a bottleneck with more high-paying jobs at the top but fewer good positions for everyone else.
"The thing we shouldn't be worried about at present or for quite a while is the quantity of jobs," he said. "We should be worried about the quality of jobs."
Rockwell Automation, a Milwaukee, Wisconsin-based $32 billion company that offers AI products for manufacturers, saw demand spike during the pandemic since supply chain disruptions prompted countries like the U.S. to expand manufacturing within their borders, Dave Vasko, the company's senior director of advanced technology at Rockwell Automation, told ABC News.
"No doubt, demand has gone up," he said, noting a shortage of available workers in the manufacturing sector. "Companies are trying to make existing workers more productive."
Vasko called fears of AI-induced job losses "overblown," rejecting concerns that the technology could, for instance, make blue-collar jobs in manufacturing unavailable to workers who lack a college degree. "These are really incremental skills," he said.
Another company that saw a spike in demand in recent years is Bear Robotics, the Silicon Valley-based maker of the robots carrying plates of food at Sergio's.
Founded in 2017, the company has raised $120 million and employs 250 people, with robots active in roughly 3,000 restaurants, hotels and casinos, said Juan Higueros, a co-founder and chief operating officer.
At the outset of the pandemic, millions of hospitality workers were sent home amid widespread shutdowns. As the industry reopened, many didn't return. The industry has about 2 million unfilled positions, government data showed.
Worker shortages have bedeviled the hospitality industry for years, Higueros said. "When COVID hit, it got tremendously worse," he added. "It's a very tiresome and very hard job."
He said the robots function primarily as a "sidekick" for waiters but acknowledged that they allow managers to staff fewer employees on a given shift, such as overnight, when slow customer traffic may not warrant a large workforce.
Rather than hurt waiters, the robots help make their job easier, Higueros said. No longer required to lift heavy trays of plates and lug the empty dishes back to the kitchen, the servers can focus on providing affable service to a larger number of tables, ensuring the workers more tips, he added.
The robots will make restaurants more profitable and careers in hospitality more sustainable, leading to job creation, Higueros said. "People will look back and say, 'Oh my god, I can't believe how we used to do things.'" he said.
In a sense, the purported effect of AI robots on wait staff aligns with a best-case scenario described by Autor: artificial intelligence makes jobs more productive, and in turn more lucrative.
But the adoption of AI throughout the economy -- and the adjoining need for skilled jobs -- may push a flood of workers without those skills to professions like hospitality, where a glut of applicants could drive down pay, Autor said. At the same time, the tech sector could drive growth in highly paid jobs. "It becomes very polarized," he said.
Still, education and skills programs could help workers make the transition, spreading the fruit borne by greater productivity to a larger number of workers. Society will determine how AI gets implemented, Autor said, and, in turn, what it does to the workforce.
"It's not up to the technology to choose this," he said.