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Most of us don’t think about those those clerks and secretaries, bank tellers and gas station attendants who have been replaced by automation, but that is actually what robotics looks like–not like Data or even R2D2.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