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Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Rise of the Food Machines

Just as they did with the automobile industry automation and robots are changing the 700 billion dollar food services industry. The internet of things is probably in the news more but it is still decades away. What's happening today in the life of every one is a graceful  return to automation replacing unskilled labor and distribution in the restaurant and food services industry. Just recently the Mc Donald' Restaurant chain has come in to the spotlight for it's attempted replacement of minimum wage counter workers with  sophisticated automation.

A change that comes as no surprise to the citizens of Berlin, Germany where McDonald's has used an automated touchscreen ordering system along side human workers in many restaurants for more than three years. The company that owns Chili's Grill & Bar also said this week it will complete a tablet ordering system rollout next month at its U.S. restaurants. Applebee's announced last December that it would deliver tablets to 1,800 restaurants this year.  Not exactly robot servers alla  "The Jetsons" but very close.

Why is it feared  that  automation will disrupt the  low income job market?  Probably because  over fifty years ago the roles were reversed. At a time when  low income job takers were hard to find automation was used to fill the gap in employer needsAutomats have existed since the 1900's and though the McDonald's version is new to us it is not the first restaurant chain to use them.


The automated restaurant format was threatened by the arrival of fast food, served over the counter and with more payment flexibility than traditional automats, in the automats' core urban markets in the 1970s; their remaining appeal was strictly nostalgic. Another contributing factor to their demise was inflation of the 1970s, making the food too expensive to be bought conveniently with coins, in a time before bill acceptors commonly appeared on vending equipment.  At the time human workers became more efficient in performing the complex tasks required during a transaction.  Simple slot machines could not  do what was needed without the supervision and help of non-skilled laborers. The use of cash  in transactions and the translation of menu orders into over the counter products still had to be done. Technology was not yet available that could communicate these tasks to the kitchen. This situation and the economy of the times resulted in automats being replaced entirely by humans.

Men are not Machines

If you've ever worked at a McDonald's Restaurant  then you  know firsthand  that their training program is one that attempts to turn human workers into machines. The problem being of course human workers can no longer deliver the level of efficiency that modern technology does. The result being employers are forced to balance the capabilities of  humans against the cost of machinery. They do it by paying the lowest wages possible and without giving health insurance and other benefits if possible. The time now has come that the cost of technology is low enough for machines to take over again. The weaknesses found in the early 1900's  slot machines and latter in vending machines have been overcome.  Now interaction between customer and machine is more efficient. Automation should be welcomed as the means of alleviating poverty and undoing the damage done by the attempts to make men into machines.

Cashless societies

One of the main  reasons that  humans were needed in any transaction was the because of the use of cash. The modern use of credit cards, debit cards and mobile phones has made automation more pragmatic and secure in a business that depends on the conveniences it can provide to its customers.  Businesses can be more profitable in ways that do not burden workers and society with the cost of that hunt for profitability.

Factory Food

Made possible by fast food by formula, robots can now do food preparation . The earlier complexities involved in direct preparation of edible foods has been removed and  no longer require human workers. Because modern day mans love affair with fast foods and their algorithm like recipes has made it possible for machines to understand. With  that understanding machines can be more efficient and exacting than humans.

Robots that can perform repetative tasks faster than is possible for their biological counterparts.  They only need the right environment to thrive in. Luckily  the global increase of  fast food restaurants  has provided this environment.

This new automation  is a return to what was happening a hundred years ago before the world got sidetracked with war and economic turmoil. It can only be expected that this new push for tech to make the food supply chain more effective is not one that can be stopped with humans protesting that they would rather be mistreated than replaced.

The cost of manufacturing and distributing food is still to expensive feed the entire world. While we waste vast amounts of food because man is no longer capable of doing the job correctly without the help of machines. Systems and automation like the one shown here to the left and what  McDonald's is expected to have in the future will save us from doing more damage to our lives.

The world will have to accept the fact that  computer science, robotics and communication is not reserved for entertainment and economic activities. They are here to help with basic human needs and though  large corporations profit from the innovations. Ultimately we as human beings will profit more.



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