The Engines of Progress Leave Some Jobs in the Past

Earlier this month, multiple pieces came out from news outlets such as the BBC and the Washington Post, centering on the debut of Flippy, the fast food chain Caliburger’s new burger-flipping robot, at their location in Pasadena, California. At the moment, the robot’s functions are limited to timing burger flips, flipping burgers and cleaning spatulas; but Miso Robotics, its creator, has stated that they intend to add more features as funding comes in.

Reactions to this vision of what seems to be the future of the fast food industry have ranged widely. There was excitement from those interested in the advances in robotics that Flippy represents. But there was also fear.  A new wave of fear of what will happen to jobs in the food service industry as automation technology improves.

The best way to gauge if fear is appropriate is to look at reliable data.  But all that the data showed was this: no one really has any idea what the future will bring. The MIT Technology Review compiled the most prominent studies on the subject of jobs lost and gained from increasing automation over the next few decades in the US, the UK and worldwide.  MIT’s researchers found no patterns.

So, left with no more information than what was started with, all that can be offered is general hunches and feelings, for all they are worth. The World Economic Forum has called ongoing advances in robotics, artificial intelligence and other emerging technologies “The Fourth Industrial Revolution.”

Just as no one can turn back the clock and stop using engines to power machines, or supply the current population without mass production, robotic automation is not going to quietly go away. And as jobs in the service industry become automated, there will be less demand for human workers. Students interviewed about this agree.

“The service industry isn’t going to be a valid job anymore,” said WCC student Amanda Stalcup when informed about Flippy.

How the rest of the country and the world will deal with this outside the scope of this article, but there is hope for us: New York State residents working towards college educations. If anyone will survive and thrive in tomorrow’s workplace, it will be people who have leaders that understand the importance of universal college education and create programs like Excelsior, NYS’s college grant system.

And if anyone out there is worried that automation will come faster than humans can adapt to it, here’s some good news. Flippy was put on leave only a couple of days after its grand debut and has yet to return. Official statements cited a shortage of the trained employees needed to work alongside the bot on all the tasks needed to make a burger. Without a human contingent that could keep up with him, Flippy was just a very expensive piece of sculpture.

I have experience in automation through my family’s computer business and if there is one lesson I have learned, is that upgrades need to be concurrent. Upgrading just one feature and expecting the rest of the process to just keep up with it ends up looking like the factory scene from “I Love Lucy.”

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