Screenshot of robot chefs in a Beijing noodle bar, via YouTube
Fast-food workers in 60 cities across the US went on strike yesterday, to demand a livable salary and benefits, and the ability to unionize so they can collectively bargain for a minimum wage of $15—more than double what the federal minimum is now.
The fast-food strikes are igniting the political debate over the minimum wage, which in turn is igniting a favorite claim of futurists and Big Business alike: that if salary mandates go up, companies will just replace the humans with robots.
Timed with the country-wide strike yesterday, the Employment Policies Institute took out a full-page ad in the Wall Street Journal warning that the protests “aren't a battle against management—they're a battle against technology.”
Now, the institute that paid for the ad is a DC think tank commonly regarded as a thinly veiled lobbyist group for the restaurant industry, so that’s the perspective they're coming from. Still, the group’s "careful what you wish for" argument has got people wondering if we're already losing the race against the machine.
True enough, robots have started infiltrating the fast-food industry. In the US, “automats” are on the rise—restaurants with touch screen “iServers” instead of humans. And it's not just cashiers who risk being displaced; machines are also learning to cook. A restaurant owner in Beijing created a robot that can slice noodles, and the San Francisco startup Momentum Machines invented a robotic burger-maker that boasts it can make 360 gourmet burgers in an hour—the work of three full-time humans.
In Europe and Asia the rise of automation is further along. Two years ago, while McDonalds hired 64,000 employees in the US, across the pond the chain ordered 7,000 touch screen kiosks to replace cashiers. Amsterdam's Febo chain serves up a burger and fries in a vending machine, while over in Japan, the sushi chain Kura has also eliminated cashiers entirely.
No doubt, society’s cruising toward an automated future, but let's not get ahead of ourselves. The dystopian (or utopian, depending who you ask) future robot workforce hasn’t completely emerged from the realm of sci-fi yet. For one, where are the robots coming from? Someone has to manufacture and program them, which means jobs. Also, there are still plenty of menial tasks a computer can't handle. A touch screen can't clean tables, mop floors, or flip burgers—and they’re terrible at customer service.
What's more, there’s no proof that more robots equal less jobs. As a New York Times editorial pointed out this week, there isn’t a finite amount of labor. Tasks that require problem-solving, dexterity, and certain skills—even if not higher education—are still outside the realm of what machines can easily replace.
"Labor-saving technological change necessarily displaces workers performing certain tasks—that’s where the gains in productivity come from—but over the long run, it generates new products and services that raise national income and increase the overall demand for labor,” wrote the Times.
So far, so true, mounting research suggests. Michael Reich, coauthor of a study by the National Employment Law Project told Slate, “Technology has been increasing restaurant productivity for some time—think of computerized ordering of supplies, Open Table and Yelp and electronic ovens—but that has not translated into lower employment in the aggregate. Indeed, employment in restaurants has been growing along with the use of technology.”
As far as the thousands of workers demanding a livable wage for their McJobs, I'd hazard to guess they're less worried about being replaced by a robot than paying the bills and sending the kids to daycare. In the post-recession US economy, there are 2 million fewer jobs than before the downturn, which means the folks flipping burgers aren't teenagers working part-time through summer break, but sole breadwinners with no other form of income, who are educated and skilled, but can't find other jobs.