The Burger Bot horizon

With recent news about fast food workers striking & demonstrating in connection with the general “Fight for $15” campaign by low wage labor, I thought about a common right-wing response trope aimed at such people: “they’ll just automate it & fire you, so nyah nyah”. As luck would have it, a couple of people on social media obliged in linking what they saw as proving their point — a burger robot, built by the company Momentum Machines. Click on the links for detail,  & I’ll be below throwing cold water on this.

A few things that stick out in coverage of the device I’d like to remark on:

  • Multiple sources each referring to this exact product suggests that this is the only remotely viable one out there, which means thanks to intellectual property law (the company has several patents on it) they can charge a monopoly price on it. Any competitor shows up & if their bot has any similarities to the Momentum Machines bot, they can be sued to death. Due to this, the hypothetical business landscape the anti-labor snark implies would be one where curiously each burger chain is sourcing its equipment from a single company.
  • …and that assumes the company would even be selling it. As the second link — a piece at the food lovers site Serious Eats — shows, their plan sounds more like wanting to compete with McDonald’s instead of going into business with them (they straight up say most fast food burgers suck, & emphasize various custom options pointing toward a more high-end burger experience). Plans can and do change over time, but this isn’t promising for the dreaded Grill Jockey Apocalypse.

Say they change their minds, then what?

  • The timeframe they set at the time of that article was 11 months. That Serious Eats piece is from October 2012, and the company’s own website gives no update on the project as of today. Even then, the machine wasn’t cooking the patty itself yet. They also stated an accuracy of 95 percent in properly constructing the burger — which, note, is the only thing this machine does. Most fast food places that currently exist have a relatively wide variety of options, from chicken sandwiches, nuggets, fish sandwiches, etcetera (famously, Jack In The Box even does tacos). Even the intentionally stripped down Five Guys has fries. Though fast food workers are widely stereotyped as a bunch of surly incompetents (which based on their ubiquity & frequency of people still, y’know, eating at these places looks more a matter of Class Shaming than truth), surely a comparison study could be done.
  • As anyone with an understanding of business & economics knows, swapping people with machines isn’t magic. Hiring workers is a steady, constant transaction — Wage times Hours equals Labor Cost. Replacing those workers with a machine is known as a capital investment, which after the planning stage is a lump cost transaction followed by depreciation as the machine is in service. The company profiled gives an estimate of labor cost savings to the standard fast food restaurant of $135,000 a year… which leaves the obvious question of how much acquisition & installation would cost. Also, maintenance* is an unknown at this point since it hasn’t gone live.
  • There’s a cultural sense to this as well, with human interaction being part of the experience of eating out. As Kevin Carson mentioned in his C4SS piece on the “Fight for $15” movement, carving that interaction out of food service has been attempted before, & it fell off. The concept of the Automat, as it was called, resides in history books, other than the occasional outlier in urban Japan that tends to be used after the bars close for the novelty of it (and because they’re drunk).

As we can see, the future of Burger Bots making millions of workers obsolete is nowhere near as inevitable as anti-labor critics portray. There is an additional implication such critics make about the market value** of fast food labor I’d like to touch on, that is “anybody can do it, that’s why it’s low pay, shut up”:

Well, you chose not to do it. You had the option to make a cheeseburger yourself & decided, whether due to time constraint or simply valuing the leisure gained by doing otherwise, to go somewhere and exchange money for the service of preparing your meal. To say ones labor is worthless while you LITERALLY eat its product… that sentiment leaves a bad taste in my mouth.

* – Speaking of maintenance, a side note: since as I mentioned this machine solely does burgers, even at deployment other items would still need humans to handle them. Humans who are capable of monkeywrenching…

** – Like Kevin, I’m obviously not particularly enamored with pushing higher wages by government mandate, per se. While in agreement with his argument on the movement as a salvo in class struggle, I’d also add that since this economy is after all rigged it’s a bit rich to expect frustrated poor people to leave a weapon on the table Because Philosophy. In a system built on plunder, to quote Econ 101 at the poor is effectively to give aid & comfort to the enemy.


About b-psycho

Left-libertarian blogger & occasional musician.
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