January 22, 2013

Robot Burger Update

Momentum Machines' robot delivers a burger

Earlier this month I wrote an essay on the issue of technological unemployment, "Hello Robots, Goodbye Fry Cooks." It featured an unusual press release from a company called Momentum Machines. The essay attracted a significant amount of attention and was subsequently picked up by the technology blog Cyborgology.

Momentum Machines touted in its release the benefits of a hamburger-making robot that would make it possible for fast food restaurants to get rid of all their line cooks, saving the "Quick Service Restaurant" (QSR) industry billions of dollars annually in labor costs. 

At the same time the release expressed the company's desire to help displaced line cooks find new jobs as engineers by offering opportunities for discounted technical education. The release also cited the theories of economists who have long argued that technological advance eventually produces more rather than less employment.

My essay questioned some of those assumptions and described a brief email exchange I'd had with the president of Momentum Machines, Alexandros Vardakostas.

This morning on a whim I looked in on the Momentum Machines web site and discovered that its original press release has been changed.

The original, somewhat inflammatory headline ("The Restaurant Industry Is The Most Labor Intensive Industry In The Country; Our Technology Can Save The QSR Industry $9 Billion/Year In Wages.") has been replaced by a friendlier claim:

Our Technology Will Democratize Access to High Quality Food
Making It Available to the Masses

A subhead elaborates on this theme: "Fast food doesn’t have to have a negative connotation anymore. With our technology, a restaurant can offer gourmet quality burgers at fast food prices."

Much of the original copy remains, with an occasional tweak. For example, the company still promises that its machine will make it possible to replace all the line cooks in a restaurant, but now the point is made that what management saves in labor can be spent on higher-quality ingredients. 

The new release still promises to help train cooks displaced by its technology (no details offered), and still endorses the historical economic argument that advances in technology ultimately produce increases in employment. It ignores the rash of recent articles, cited in my essay, that question whether the sorts of radical advances now being realized in automation technologies might make those historical arguments obsolete.

Note also that since my essay appeared, the CBS newsmagazine 60 Minutes presented a piece addressing the same issues, and asking the same question.

Photo credit: Gizmag

©Doug Hill, 2013

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