Automation is a topic that gets a lot of attention, but often the ideas people get from it are a bit extreme.
Sometimes when automation is brought up, it’s all doom and gloom since it signals a major reduction of the workforce. Other times, automation is thought of as a great thing which solves most business productivity issues since robots are supposed to perform both better and cheaper than human labour. The truth, however, is more complicated than that and the recent news of “Flippy” being taken offline is a perfect example of how automation storied aren’t always that accurate.
A few weeks ago, a story came out about a burger flipping robot named “Flippy” that automatically flips burgers designed for use at fast food restaurants. The way it works isn’t really that complicated. The robot arm uses thermal and regular vision to detect when the burgers in its reach need to be flipped over on the grill. Employees at the restaurant are alerted when the burgers need to be dressed with condiments. The arm also can have its handle switched from spatula to brush to also automatically clean the surface of the grill. CaliBurger in Pasadena, California will be the first restaurant to use Flippy but with the rising cost of fast food workers due to increases to minimum wage, as well as the high-turnover of many of these jobs, automated solutions to the fast food industry are expected to continue becoming more of the norm in the very near future.
Interests in Flippy was high but the latest news from CaliBurger is that the automated experiment still needs more work. After just one day in use, Flippy was shut down due to not being able to handle the demand from customers. Flippy was designed to be able to flip 2,000 burgers a day but perhaps the interest in seeing it work brought in more customers than what was expected. At the restaurant, Flippy isn’t being completely abandoned after being shut down. A “coming soon” sign was placed in the kitchen area as the code for the robot will continue to be evaluated and probably improved for later use. It’s not just Flippy that might need some tweaks though because according to the restaurant, staff will also need to be retrained to better coordinate their movements to be in sync with the robot.
The dedication of both the restaurant and Flippy’s manufacturer, Miso Robotics, suggests that this isn’t a stunt and actually something they fully expect to work better in the coming months, so it’s premature to celebrate human workers as the victorious ones in this episode. In fact, though this story didn’t really seem like proof the automated workplace is already here, the truth is that automation can threaten up to 800 million jobs in many other sectors according to the latest reports. Automation doesn’t just threaten to replace jobs people consider menial. Even high-level positions such as truck drivers, journalists, lawyers, and even doctors are ones that are capable of being automated.
For businesses, the benefit of an automated robot is pretty clear: cheap and dependable work. With lower costs, that means more profits. However, if automation is as widespread as many futurists predict, the downsides to that could mean millions of people will be out of work. With millions of people out of work, what happens to the market demand?
These are the sorts of moral and economic questions that there aren’t clear answers on and it doesn’t appear policymakers are exactly prepared to answer them just yet.