Send In The Robots

Don’t bother; they’re here.

Along with all the other causes of social upheaval–political polarization, Russia’s increasingly unnerving nuclear threats, escalating climate change, global inflation…the list goes on…the displacement of millions of workers by automation is getting closer and closer. Maybe–as yesterday’s post suggested–this is just the start of a brave new economy. Or not.

It has always been a mystery to me why workers in and out of unions have focused all their attention and anger on off-shoring, the movement of factories to countries with lower labor costs and the ability to evade rules protecting the environment. That movement has clearly disadvantaged American workers, but it pales in comparison to the steady, seemingly inexorable march of the machines–a march they’ve basically ignored.

When I was young–admittedly a very long time ago–attendants pumped our gas. In offices, rows of secretaries typed documents for lawyers and managers, using carbon paper for the copies. Clerks checked people out at the grocery store, and we paid with cash we got from a teller, not an ATM. The list goes on. And on.

Most of us don’t think about those those clerks and secretaries, bank tellers and gas station attendants who have been replaced by automation, but that is actually what robotics looks like–not like Data or even R2D2.

Consider Flippy.

Flippy is the robot described at the link; it is making the French fries at White Castle .

The fryer station is hot and it’s dangerous. It’s frequently where workplace accidents occur. It’s also where the drive-through gets jammed up at night with people waiting on their loaded fries and chicken rings.

So Miso let Flippy keep his jaunty name but re-engineered him to start dipping fries. White Castle bought in, installing Flippy in a Merrillville, Ind., location and then several others around the country, with the aim of having 100 over the next few years. Jack in the Box execs zipped up to Pasadena for a demo.

Fries are just the beginning. Miso Robotics–the company that came up with Flippy– is developing a coffee forecaster-maker-pourer for Panera. It has also begun work on Sippy, a drink fulfillment robot that pours, seals and labels beverage orders; Sippy has already been ordered by Jack in the Box .

Then there’s Chippy, which will soon be frying and seasoning fresh tortilla chips at Chipotle.

The robots, with their articulated arms, multiple cameras and machine learning, excel at those mind-numbing tasks restaurant workers have to repeat again and again. And they aren’t sniffy about working the graveyard shift.

“We realized for a robotic solution to be a real solution for our customers, it had to have a really high customer return on investment. Which meant it had to take a meaningful amount of labor off the table,” Bell said.

As various companies test and perfect these automated substitutes for workers, it’s easy to see their appeal. Robots work 24/7, don’t need breaks, don’t shirk when the boss isn’t looking, don’t argue with (or sexually assault) co-workers, don’t get sick or require benefits.

They are also currently pricey–although as production ramps up, prices will undoubtedly come down.

But now — with restaurants facing a protracted labor shortage and robotic technology becoming both better and cheaper — restaurant brands are doing new math. How long before an initial technology investment pays off? How long will it take to train human employees to work alongside robot co-workers? And, ultimately, how many restaurant jobs will be permanently commandeered by robots?

It is that last question that will challenge policymakers. I’ve posted previously about the likely disruption when self-driving cars and trucks are safe enough to take to the roads. Millions of Americans currently make their living driving everything from big rigs to school buses to Amazon delivery vans to taxis, Ubers and Lyfts. It is highly unlikely that a significant number of those people will be able to retrain and find alternate employment.

Fast-food establishments currently face a different labor landscape, of course.

If robots are cheaper and more efficient, experts wonder, will the more than 3 million entry-level fast-food jobs be ceded to robots entirely in the future? For now, the thorny problem is there just aren’t enough humans who want to do the work.

According to the National Restaurant Association, 65 percent of restaurant owners still say finding enough workers is a central problem. In the Great Resignation, prospective hospitality workers were being lured back with the promise of fancy fitness club memberships and 401(k) plans.

Whatever happens to restaurants, automation won’t stop there.

In addition to earning our daily bread, most of us derive substantial meaning from our jobs. What will happen when those jobs are gone? I don’t know about the rest of you, but I don’t have a clue.


  1. When I was in high school, at the request of my Grandfather, I put together a crew to move bales of hay from the field to storage in the barn. As I recall, we got $.10 per bale split among the crew. The work was hot and hard. I had a tough time keeping help. So did every farmer. The price “per bale in the barn” went up and up. Eventually, Deere and other equipment manufacturers developed the large round bale (you have seen them in the fields.) These did not need to be put in a barn and, with special equipment, could be moved about by one farmer. Once a farmer switched to round bales, he had no need for a crew of high schoolers, at any “price per bale in the barn.” That work was gone forever.

  2. When I consider my 10 years of restaurant work (prep cook, cook, expo, cashier, server and clean up crew), I wonder how young adults like me would learn teamwork if robots take over. Learning those “skills” in restaurants defined my future empathy towards other humans. I learned to shut up and listen and I learned that to serve your customers you need to work as a team together. I truly believed that all humans should work in restaurants for 6 months to find out how working in teams made our business successful. We humans really suck at working together and I hope that the robots that take over these tasks will point us to a more perfect work environment. But you all know, I’m just a dreamer.

  3. The automobile industry has had robots for years, the same with pharmaceutical companies. Boston robotics has the so-called mechanical dog robots and their bipedal robots that can actually dance.

    With the Advent of automatic adaptability and adaptive learning, how long will it be before these mechanical creations are considered sentient.

    Would it be possible for our mechanical friends to demand their own civil rights eventually? Hey, it’s possible!

    How far in the future would the Will Smith movie I Robot be feasible in our reality? One of the main credos baked into Androids or robots would be that they cannot harm their human overlords. But with a collective and universally linked consciousness, how long would that last?

    Already you have robots able to conduct a self-diagnostics and self repair. Will there be an independence of man, evolutionary process? A process where so-called AI actually becomes the superior?

    With the ability to decipher and create unbelievable amounts of data, how long before a certain level of consciousness occurs? How long before self-preservation starts to creep in to robotics? Actually, it already is in the military grade robotics.

    One of the laws of robotics would be that humans cannot be harmed by robots, but, that is not baked into the military grade robotics! And, if these so-called artificially intelligent creations can communicate on the world wide web, what could happen?

    A rudimentary consciousness of self-preservation could go a long way towards making robots and Androids independent, and with a superior ability to progress intellectually and develop their own moral boundries.

    After all, mankind/humans in general would love to be god’s, how would they handle that responsibility? Evidence shows, not very well. A prime example of this, would be man’s love for slavery and trying to be superior to his fellow man. Maybe our mechanical friends could possibly be better teachers than their creators!

  4. If the healthcare system became prevention-focused, fast-food restaurants would all go bye-bye.

    Our healthcare system is profit-based, so their motto is, “Eat more fast-food, please!”

    Any idea how much money Big Pharma makes off high blood pressure and high cholesterol meds?

    As for this comment above, “with restaurants facing a protracted labor shortage and robotic technology becoming both better and cheaper — restaurant brands are doing new math.”

    Many of us aren’t buying the so-called “protracted labor shortage.” This is industry propaganda helped by the propaganda media. The industry has been shifting over to tech and robots to save costs.

    Does anybody order food at the kiosks? Those were set up long before any “labor shortage.”

    This is a simple case of profit-driven corporations and CEOs who get bonuses for reducing overhead – capitalism at its finest.

    And lastly, if you expect corrupt and captive unions to help their members, good luck. This is why the socialists have been organizing rank-and-file worker committees to go around the impeding union apparatus. There’s no FDR in Washington this time, and it’s a global movement for the working class (another reason fast-food CEOs look at robots – robots don’t strike).

  5. We must also take into consideration the laziness and expected instant gratification of people who demand they receive the services of these robots. It was just earlier this week when I again thanked the Banking Sr. at PNC for the friendly reliable services they always provide this old, deaf, disabled woman. In an emergency situation, they waited for me to be released from the hospital after being mugged and robbed to have my old accounts closed and new accounts open and ready for me. Before moving back here from Florida in 2001 I sent a letter to what was AFNB at 12th and North Arlington explaining my needs to open new accounts, transfer money and, due to the person who bought my Florida home, I needed it ready in less than 3 weeks with closing date on my Indy home 2 days after I arrived. Her name was Billie, the bank had changed hands and they did not have E-mail service to clients so she worked with me from her home computer. We exchanged many E-mails and my bank worked from the Florida end; when I got to the bank I had a new checking account with the box of checks, savings account information and the cashier’s check for the amount to pay for my Indy home 2 days later. All I had to do was sign a few more papers. Could robots do that? I switched to PNC when Chase bought out the bank I had been using and won’t go into the many, many problems I had with them, including an attempted rip-off of $700 from my savings account. Chase closed that branch a few years ago saying most people use their phones to bank and weren’t needed; the area surrounding that bank wouldn’t be primarily people using their cell phones for everything. A line from a movie; “We don’t use these electronics, they use us.” There are robotics which are a benefit to us in ways we aren’t aware but if you can’t wait for a worker to flip your burger; stay home and fry and flip your own.

  6. Living like the Jetsons did is now easy to envision. I hope to live long enough to see personal flying vehicles in use.

  7. UBI is the only rational and moral answer, so far.

    The idea that some kind of full-time (40hrs+/wk) job should occupy the center of your life will become a relic of the Protestant Work Ethic and the American Dream will hopefully and correspondingly become something other than climbing the ladder of success as measured only by income and wealth (or inheriting an upper rung on said ladder).

    Defenders of the faiths (capitalism and Christianity) bristle at this notion but they have no alternative answer except: “learn to code”. Not everyone can nor wants to learn to code. Society will be far better off when a greater % of the populace can occupy their time doing things they enjoy doing, or at least things they are good at doing, as opposed to body-killing or brain-numbing work that’s regarded as sheer drudgery. This includes preparing and serving fast food, but it also includes millions of administrative white-collar jobs as well.

    Bring it on.

  8. The question of job loss has always been around. We wondered what would happen to those lines of typists and secretaries in a future in which computers did their jobs. I think about an interview I had with Uncle Eli, otherwise known as Lilly, in the early 70s. I said I would do any bad job they had, but my goal was to go to law school and perhaps work for the company in that role. I was told that Eli Lilly doesn’t hire women to be attorneys. They hire female lawyers to be legal secretaries. After I asked the young African-American man if he recognized the irony of his statement, I took my Leave. My best guess is that, in at least one company that we all know and love, that line of typists and secretaries are now attorneys for Lilly. In the long run, change doesn’t necessarily mean loss. It means we need to prepare for a very different world and to train for very different jobs.

  9. I wonder what all of those living in Developing Countries without the infrastructure or even the need for robotics, at least in the rest of this century, would think of our concerns? With billions of people to keep under their control, will the Chinese and Indian governments invest in the technology necessary to allow the vast majority of their people to have time to think for themselves? Or will they invest in the technologies to provide endless entertainment to distract and suppress the rest?
    IMO, we are seeing the future for them right now in the endless “entertainment” avenues currently distracting and appeasing the general populace, TV, electronic media of all kinds, gambling, sports, anything to keep us from watching control move inexorably into the greedy hands of the oligarchs.
    To quote someone else, I am glad I am old.

  10. At last. I’ve lived long enough to totally agree with Todd’s comment today. My favorite part is the preventative care philosophy of the health care industry. Once capitalism moguls discovered profits from sickness, they went all-in. When the Reagan morons decided to allow insurance companies to make medical decisions based on profits, the game was over for rational health care in this country. Add to that, the tax-empt political donations by those very insurance and drug companies to politicians cements the status quo. Thank Republican-appointed SCOTUS fools for Citizens United v. FEC for that.

    Then, one must ask: “Who is building the robots?” “Who is peeling the potatoes at the fast-food cholesterol mills?” “Who is preparing the meat and grinding it for the ‘Flippers'”? “Who is building the tractors for the round hay bale management?” There are many more similar questions not included in this “discussion” that create all sorts of curiosity.

    Imagine, if you can, what would happen if the profit mad corporations started installing robots in China, SE Asia and Latin America to replace the penny-on-the-dollar human labor. What would those “third-world” nations do with millions of unemployed, hungry and idle people?

    Bottom line: Capitalism, unregulated is totally exploitive of humans. The 1% NEED the profits to slake their endless thirst for money and power. The ideal labor environment without robots is slavery. Since slavery is currently illegal – in most places, but not all – robots will do to replace the drain on profits…once the ROI for purchase and maintenance of them goes to black ink.

    Universal basic income? Never gonna happen as long as capitalists run politics. But when the people have no jobs, no money and no ability to stop reproducing, what then? There’s gotta be a dystopian book out there somewhere that describes this scenario in all of its Soilient Green glory.

  11. Let’s see – which people will be displaced by these robots? Not the majority white professional class. Nope, majority minority poor/working poor folks. Should feed our “divides” nicely. Restless minorities with little opportunity to rise. Restless “underclass” whites looking for “royalty” to take care of them/follow.

    A dream? Ok, so now the “essential workers” that can’t easily be replaced by robots: caregivers, garbage collectors, prison guards, etc. might get paid a lot more? In my dreams…

  12. theres a need for more labor(there are more jobs that humans,er working ones), since cutting the border up and slowing the immigrant flow,every aspect of labor here has taken a hit. theres a backdoor in every buisness, loooking into them over the decades of driving OTR seeing the majority of that labor,obviously, from our border.(thank desatin for sending more workers to Boston) the labor shortage,jobs that came back from china due inability to ship in a timely and contracted manor,and hell why not charge $12K for a rental container, and get the products here again,someday…. American steel mills are above capacity,since we now require American made,but the greed in that alone,will slowly decimate any money for the infrastructure building. everyone on trumps mainline rants complain,mind you im out here talking with them,all,everyone, saying,those lazy ones who dont want to work,because they dont get instant gratification and,well,parroting what they only want to hear. everyone i know,is employed. as i relate that,reality check, they agree. but those lazies exist somewhere. since we have developed a new wage scale,in some fields, the wall street greed train has made sure our overall take home is still 2%+ annually,and the same for decades,as the gleefully pocket the rise in wages,via profiteering. one over looked issue,child care. since covid decimated a segment of our population,those who helped,in family,and seniors who would take care of the littleones while mom/dad worked,there are fewer who held up that end of the economy.gig workers now take up a large amount of available labor,to industries that need a clock in and work human. we overlook why,when the stats for some like gig work,dont appear in most studies,as a overall wheres waldo. no matter how,its done,it gets done,while wall street and ,were depending on finacial institutions to gouge us further in to debt by design. the robot get its living wage,we get french fries to go..

  13. Lester:
    ill relate as a trucker,43 years worth.its not sitting in a seat,its setting up a time to load,being i specialize in my off season for one of a kind,or high dollar sensitive flatbed freight.specialized hauling takes equipmemt,diffrent from mainline freight. being able to get it loaded and tied down is a art. being on time is a challenge. most shippers ship on the final contract date, im expected to deliver this load on time against everthing not related to building it. many times a crane is on site for this move,and charging the reciever big money to move and set up this crane. now take that electronic log and shove me into a no real world device,and the fun begins. i dont sweat being late,i blame it on that log. but that log also causes me time,,and money,and thats why no one wants to drive that truck anymore. its called real world wages. that robot truck only works from door to door with freight from warehouse to warehouse. it will never deliver a load of gasoline to a convience store with a postage stamp size sometime how that driver needs to overcome assholes who wont move..Been there..

  14. Vern:
    Todd aint always right,but hes looking over the fence too..
    up here in senior land dakotas,sanford is the biggest profit margin for health care. any one who
    has a public offering on the market is obvioulsy greed rridden over need. our ruarl med centers dont exist anymore. sanford help buy them out and close them.

  15. Oops — it’s a novel, not a short story, although chapters could certainly be read independently as short works.

  16. Max – read the article – mostly about radiologists – really. No brainer as to when robots can do the final analysis. But, AI is already being used for some preliminary related work. How any non-professional folks are radiologists??? Typical NYT elitist garbage passing for news.

  17. Maybe the robotics in some jobs scare off applicants as well as low salaries; schools do not train all students in the electronics we must deal with in our daily lives. So many require education in specific robotic or electronic knowledge and experience in job descriptions. Progress does NOT always mean improvement.

    Progress from driving a stick-shift to automatic was a vast improvement but electronic cars and driverless cars are going from Fred Flintstone’s pedal power to the Jetson’s mode of transportation.

    In the 1970s Alan Watts predicted “Man is going to computerize himself out of existence.” That time is here.

  18. Entry level—unfortunately fast food jobs have not been entry level jobs especially for teenagers in a very long time. I worked at McDonald’s in Terre Haute when I turned 17 and was there for 8 years and partially because Terre Haute pretty much only offers minimum wage jobs.

    Pay attention and you see a lot of senior citizens working in fastfood especially during the day. It makes me sad to see so many because they are needing to work to supplement their income or they are having to raise their grandchildren and need to go back to work.

    I see mostly adults working fastfood. Back in my day there were a fair number of teens but more and more adults and we actually had 3 employees in their 70’s. Fastfood is probably the only place that doesn’t age, sex, or racially discriminate and have relied on being a warm body showing up to work. I worry about where these folks will be able to find work.

  19. Elaine and all – regarding teenagers not working in fast food. They are not working at anything nearly as much as in the past – not interested – busy on screens and shunning direct interaction with other humans, including friends. Great data on this in a book I am reading and strongly recommend, “iGen” by Dr. Jean Twenge.

  20. Excellent Lester.

    I recall this conversation or a similar thread on this blog quite a while back.

    If a corporation is going to place robots And it’s workforce replacing humans, those corporations should be taxed Pretty close to the amount that they would pay a human worker In that same position.

    That money Would go into a universal basic income trust fund. And basically it would be illegal to siphon money off for any particular reason except what it was intended. It could also pay for universal health care.

    Now that would be a Utopian ideal that will never happen because of human greed and hunger for control.

    Humanity always needs something to hate. Sentient robots and such, or people having a universal basic income and universal healthcare would provide plenty of cannon fodder for those Who prefer anarchy over a panacea. Watch out for those Commi pinkos, lol! Fascism? Socialism? basically, it’s all morphed into nationalistic authoritarianism, the flavor depends on the barista making the concoction.

    One side or another, left or right, up or down, spot or stripe, It doesn’t matter, You will always have dupes that will follow the ignorant the delusional and the willfully deceptive.

    They’re wishful, worshiping at the altar of bizarro world societal construct, would place them at the Pinnacle of a pyramid based on stupidity. Where else could ignorance be worshiped but the bizarro world! self-grievance and Me’ist self-worship based on delusion is an extremely dangerous, selfish and disgusting thing!

    You can see an example of that on this b log, the person that keeps changing their screen name and making Bizarro World type statements. Like no one’s going to figure out it’s the same individual, lol! That’s not just weird , It’s insulting!

  21. Vern, it was Nixon in 1973 who for the first time gave his old buddie Kaiser Health back in California the green light for insurance in the health industry, and it was Reagan who decided to tax Social Security to get the money for huge tax cuts for the rich. Both were and their aftereffects are continuing disasters, as was and is Trump’s 7.8 trillion dollar addition to our deficit, since it is not only the money owed but its politically dampening effect on instituting other important and needed initiatives.

    There is now a bill pending to remove taxes on Social Security and Republicans should and may agree to support such a bill if Democrats will shut up about increasing Social Security payments across the board. That may be a sensible tradeoff if such a compromised agreement is limited to a combination of no taxation and a smaller increase than that now demanded.

    As to the topic today, there will be niches of increases in human labor in our brave new world that AI has not reached which will still require human endeavor – but not enough to offset the massive decrease in human employment since Silicon will harvest the low-hanging AI fruit first.

    The Protestant Work Ethic and the theory of the leisure class cannot be reconciled and will take a beating by their respective philosophers, but meanwhile we have eight billion humans to feed, clothe and house who are unemployed, which may require that we adopt a new socioeconomic view of justice that make socialism look like a system to the right of Attila the Hun and our present-day histronics juvenile. Time will tell.

  22. I was always struck by the textile workers in the South who were so gleeful in taking the jobs from New England and calling it progress, and then screamed when their job went overseas.

    In both cases, and in the case of loss to automation, we need intensive, realistic training, not “learn to code”. Also, we need to be certain that the jobs will be there.

    When I taught at DePaul (career change to computers), they closed the program when we couldn’t find placement for our graduates. When I was “downsized”, the government paid schools to teach me (and the hundreds like me) newer computer skills — but there were no jobs for my “newer skills”.

    We will always have jobs that only people can do, even if they try with machines and fail. The trick is to plan, something we are not only not good at, but have an ideological aversion to.

    Ordinarily, for a labor shortage, I would remind people that cheapo Henry Ford had a employee turnover rate of over 50% and his solution was to offer the incredible pay of $5 per day. (And it wasn’t so that his employees could buy his cars. That was PR.)

    Sadly, that won’t help if their is an alternative solution of automation.

  23. As you have noted before, we are past time to talk about UBI. There is no reason to not have it other than a group of people that think it will encourage people to lay about. What if they didn’t lay about? What if they thought up new things that made life better and easier without requiring every human on the face of the earth to grind their life to dust in service to something they can’t even own?

  24. When Henry Ford II and UAW Pres Walter Reuther we’re jointly touring new factory equipment, including robots, Ford asked Reuther how UAW who would be paying union dues when robots replaced workers. Reuther asked him who would buy cars when robots humans.

  25. So sorry about the jumbled words above. Ford asked who would pay union dues when robots replaced humans. Reuther responded – who would buy cars when robots replaced humans.

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