Tuesday, 16 December, 2003

Automating fast food restaurants

Another thing that should have been automated years ago is fast food restaurants.  You simply shouldn't have to talk to a surly minimum-wage employee in order to get a Big Mac.  Anybody who can operate an ATM or a Nintendo game could press the buttons to order a Happy Meal.  Add a credit card reader and cash acceptor, and you've got the entire required user interface for a fast food restaurant.  The rest should be pretty simple robotics:  cook the burgers for 37 seconds on each side, squirt some ketchup, mustard, or special sauce on the buns, slap on the other assorted goodies and send it off to the auto-wrapper.  Just think, fries that are correctly cooked and always hot and fresh.  Is this really that hard?  Can it possibly be more expensive than paying 20 people to do the work of 5?

The argument is that automating things puts people out of work, but my reading of recent history (since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution) doesn't show that.  If it were true, the pace of automation over the past 300 years would have long ago put everybody out of work.  The reality is that automation causes temporary and localized unemployment, requiring worker re-training.  People are freed to do more productive things.  The primary problem being that people resist any kind of change, often to the point of violence.