What do Robots, Fast Food, & Guaranteed Income Have in Common?


More in common than you might think. Interesting how different things intersect in life.


I read an article recently that noted something like 90,000 fast food jobs go unfilled daily. I can believe it – every such place I pass has signs out advertising jobs. Many proclaim free meals, signing bonuses, and other enticements. The industry is in a hurt for hires everywhere it seems.

Automation and Fast Food. What Could Possibly Go Wrong?

I stopped off at a McDonalds to get a snack recently while on a trip and I saw one potential solution. There I found a large automated kiosk at which one could place an order. You could still do so with a person at the register, but this was in fact much faster. I accidently ordered twice the food I intended. This illustrates that the customer needs to pay attention with automation. But in general, it works and decreases the demand for labor.

But this is only the beginning. I expect that soon such dining establishments will be the first of many places in which we will be talking to a robot. It might look like a robot. It may be an animatronic humanoid. This might look lifelike enough to be both reassuring and creepy. This is coming faster than anyone thinks. Get used to the idea.

What is interesting to contemplate is where else might such automation show up, soon. It is not hard to imagine this happening where there are chronic labor shortages. It will also come where labor is the dominant cost factor. Truck drivers and taxi drivers come to mind immediately.

How about movie ticket or concession positions? Some level of medical care (taking statistical data, weighing and measuring the patient, etc.). Eventually, your waiter in an upscale restaurant may be a robot. And on it goes. The list could become almost endless.

Who Pays Who for What?

On an unrelated note (but we will relate them shortly), there is a lot of talk about the idea of a guaranteed income. One of the more obscure presidential candidates (Andrew Yang) is talking this up. It has been tried in various places, with generally mixed but good results.

This is somewhat related to experiments done in developing countries with aid programs. In these cases, they dissolved the aid programs. They took the aid money and program costs, turned it all into a pile of cash. They then gave the cash to previous aid recipients. No questions asked, no strings attached.

Up to this point, it is working out. People by and large are using the money to gain economic independence. The return on investment looks good. Combine this with the impressive micro loans model, and you see real game changers.

Here is a Connecting Point

So, how do robot hamburger vendors and guaranteed income relate to each other? I can see the use of robots expanding with remarkable speed, as the technology gets better. At some point, management will want more robots than needed only to address people.

Robots will replace people who want to work. Automation replacing people is nothing new. That is already the largest reason for jobs disappearing now. Jobs are not so often lost to immigrants or companies exporting jobs; they are to technology. It has ever been thus. But this would be on a whole other scale than we see now.

This is on the horizon. We need to think about how to economically and socially address the mixture of people and robots. Maybe we each get a robot who works, and the robot’s “salary” goes to the “owner.” That would only be a partial solution. Robots would appeal to business mostly for lower labor costs.

Can You See the Future?

Some sort of formulation should be possible that touches all the bases. Production costs get lower, quality and reliability get higher. People have enough resources to live. Culture develops to encourage the use of time and resources to enhance life and society.

Maybe I need to go back and watch some old Star Trek episodes for some clues. What do you think? Ready for jobless societies? Ready to have long conversations with someone who runs on lithium batteries? This is all going to be very interesting.

          Bill Clontz

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5 replies to What do Robots, Fast Food, & Guaranteed Income Have in Common?

  1. Having robots around may be stranger than you think. Take a look at https://gomerblog.com/2014/02/hospital-robot/ . They want the robots to spend time offering empathy to patients in a hospital so doctors and nurses can more efficiently use their time on charting and other technical work.

    This is the opposite of the original vision of using AI to handle the diagnosis while doctors would get to spend more time interacting with patients. The economics, i.e. the cost of a doctor’s time, is driving this in weird directions.

    • I think you are right. We are surely in for many surprises where these things will pop up. I understand the Japanese have done a lot of work on the comforting dynamic, for illness and loneliness. Where will this conversation be in 20 years?!

  2. To Fritzon: The electronic health record is indeed lowering human error which was the original intent, but the evidence tells us it is also reducing therapeutic relationship, and therefore things like trust and compliance. When your eye is always on the screen, psychosocial issues, already identified as problematic in medicine, are amplified. So I’m not surprised robots are being introduced to provide the “human touch”, painfully ironic though that may be. Additionally, I briefly heard on NPR (Human Brain is my guess) that people love robots if they look like machines, but not so much if they have human qualities. People effusively thank Alexa and name their Roombas. But it feels like the Twilight Zone (or more recently, Black Mirror) if it looks like the Jetsons’ Rosie.

    To Bill: I have yet to experience the kiosk at McDonald’s, but in some ways it sounds like a modern-day Automat. I think the real economic issue is also a social and a racial one. We know that no one-one wants jobs that are subsistence in income, and we also know that the least privileged are relegated to those jobs, so replacing unfilled jobs with robots is not the solution. I need to learn more about the guaranteed income piece.

    • Laurel, the comparison with the old automat is a good one I had not considered. I would speculate that adding a voice to the process, asking what you would like, etc will be a next
      Step, in the manner of the Amazon Echo (with whom we converse a lot in my home).

      I find it amusing that most such devices have a female voice, especially GPS units. Apparently, if it has a male
      Voice, men tend to argue with it!

  3. We love saying “Please” and “Thank you” to the Google assistants deployed in our home, especially since they acknowledge the politeness. We’ve also configured it so that it responds to my wife with a male voice, her preference, (think of the late Carl Kasell) while I get the default female voice.

    The automat is an interesting comparison. However, as a kid in NYC, I was acutely aware of the clearly visible human hands restocking the little window when I took a piece of pie. It inspired a strange feeling which I don’t think I can recall clearly.

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