Increasingly, self-serve kiosks/ automated ordering are beloved by fast food restaurants. Starbucks offers an app and regional sandwich chain and mid-Atlantic cultural icon Wawa has had touchscreens for years. And now, McDonalds is joining the charge with self-serve kiosks nationwide. Some are insisting this is because of political pressure to raise the minimum wage, but that is, at best, disingenuous and seems to misunderstand what these self-serve kiosks are supposed to achieve.
We’ve already talked about robots and their never-ending struggle to get a foothold in the fast food industry, but the idea of robots taking our jobs fundamentally misunderstands how we use robots in our society. Robots, whether they’re Siri booking us restaurant reservations or a touchscreen taking our order, aren’t popular because they replace workers. They’re popular because they allow workers to be more productive while taking annoying tasks off their hands.
The next time you’re in a McDonald’s, watch what the cashiers do and you’ll notice their primary job is not, in fact, taking orders and processing payment. It’s expediting the orders that have already been put in. McDonald’s is a volume business: The faster you get your food and the faster you eat it, the faster you’re out the door so somebody else can come in. Consumers are fully aware of this and it manifests itself in odd ways. The company has struggled for years with the rumor that it used hard plastic chairs to discourage loitering more than fifteen minutes over a meal, despite the fact that it really was just following standard restaurant practice.
McDonald’s has refined the art of feeding you cheap burgers down to a science, but there’s one area where the chain breaks down: Ordering. Anybody who’s been stuck behind a grown adult who screams at fast food workers, is unable to decide on a soda flavor, or changes their order eight or nine times is experiencing something that — on a grand scale — drives fast food executives bonkers. A touchscreen puts the burden of getting the order right, and swiping their card, on the customer, so the cashier/expediter can turn the food around faster. A touchscreen is worth it, because they get more productivity for their buck.
It’s true that as we introduce more robots and more tools into our workforce, across a host of industries, the economy and the labor force is going to change in ways we don’t understand yet. And that means some jobs are going to change or even cease to exist in our lifetimes. But make no mistake, robots won’t be coming for any job tomorrow. Especially when most of them can’t turn a doorknob without falling over.