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Why Robots Won't Replace Minimum Wage Workers Any Time Soon

By 08.30.13
This is not happening any time soon.

This is not happening any time soon.

You may have seen recently that fast food workers across the country are striking to be paid a living wage. One of the more common responses to this, in fact one that was rolled out by the Employment Policies Institute in a full page ad in the Wall Street Journal, is that robots could easily replace all you poors, so take your $7.25 an hour and like it.

One problem, though: Robots aren’t ready to take your job, and it’s going to be a long time before they are. Here’s why.

Nobody Is Going To Sell The Restaurant Industry The Robots It Needs

The only people making high-quality, human-like robots are companies like Boston Dynamics, who mostly build robots for the governments of the world. In fact, they recently built the closest thing we have to a Terminator, so they’re pretty much the only game in town. And McDonald’s can not have one.

First of all, most of the technology in that robot is classified, and that’s a pretty hard barrier to get around. Secondly, no matter how much money the fast food industry has, the United States government has more. Hiring a teenager has far less red tape.

Manufacturing Robots On That Scale Is Currently Impossible

This isn’t something you slap together on the line with Big Marge and Harry from the bowling alley. Building a robot capable of performing complex tasks like cooking food isn’t easy and requires dump trucks of money; nobody’s really invested the money needed to build an assembly line that could churn out robots on an enormous scale, let alone the number of robots needed to staff the burger joints and sandwich shops of the world.

By contrast, we churn out humans all the time. Hell, we manufacture more humans every day. If anything we’ve got too many of them.

Repairing Robots Is A Pain In The Ass

Speaking of dump trucks of money, ever price what it takes to repair a hydraulic actuator? No? It ain’t cheap. More to the point, while that robot is broken, your restaurant is shut down; a broken robot attempting to do tasks will damage the robot, the restaurant, or both. If a human breaks a limb, they get a cast and you call the night guy.

Robots Are Idiots Compared To Humans

Robots are, by nature, linear thinkers. A robot is presented with a situation, the robot puts together a plan to affect that situation, and then the robot implements that plan. The problem is, the robot can’t think outside this plan. If something goes horribly wrong, and in many situations, that’s practically a given, robots can’t deal with it.

Worse, robots are programmed by humans, and humans are fallible to say the least. If you don’t specifically program a robot to acknowledge and deal with a situation, it won’t. Ever. In a kitchen, which is prone to things like fires, that’s bad news.

People Hate Robots

Ask yourself what your first reaction is when you get an automated phone menu. Now imagine explaining the concept of “medium rare” to one of those. The problem should become immediately apparent.

People hate, hate, hate interacting with robots. If a human is being stupid you have tools to enlighten them. With robots, you mostly have to hope there’s a manager around.

This isn’t to say that, eventually, robots and automation won’t take over the fast food industry. That’s practically a given, and it has happened before. It’s even a good thing, believe it or not. But it’s something that’s years, probably decades, away. So, sorry, fast food companies: You’re going to have to pay the lady who gets screamed at for the coffee being one degree hotter than normal a little extra.

TAGSeconomicsempty threatsRobotsTechnology

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