Food for thought: people versus machines?

When I came to London the National Minimum Wage was £6.08 an hour. The “on target” rate for April 2020 is currently forecast to be around £8.67. And in an article from BBC news from April it said that the charity the Living Wage Foundation says the wage level needed to "meet the costs of living" is £9 across the UK and £10.55 in London. I get it, staff costs are high and they keep on increasing.

Last year, I needed a quick lunch between meetings and I found Velo, a Vietnamese take away and restaurant, when I got in I went to the front desk as I could see a queue there, but their kind staff pointed me to a set of big screens located on the right side. “You need to order there” he said. My first instinct was to leave as I am one of those weird people that prefer human interaction rather than using a machine. However, as I work in hospitality, I wanted to check how was the experience from a consumer point of view. It was great, the order system is designed for dummies, can’t be easier, the staff would receive the orders and had another screen when they could check what they had pending to cook and serve for take away or eat in a tray if you wish to eat there. Whole experience was easy and pleasant. But I had contradictory feelings, even if I had a good experience, I thought the restaurant was saving costs, which is good for their business, but at the same time is taking away the chance of a job for those people who could have potentially worked there.

But since I am a big fan and defender of independent restaurants and businesses, I thought that for the owners of this business it was fair to try to save some costs.

Not too long after that, I saw a doner place that had “4 doner robots” at the shop, these robots slice the doner for the other workers that prepare your food. I thought that this was good for health and food safety and probably would save some money in labour for the owners, but would probably make the experience for the customer better and more efficient.

Nowadays, those machines I first saw at that independent Vietnamese restaurant are called “kiosks” and they are in almost every McDonald’s in London. I was horrified by this idea, all I could think about was how many jobs had been taken over by these machines.

Suddenly I felt really bad about the whole thing. I felt I am a hypocrite with double standards, I could justify and understand when an independent restaurant would use these kiosks but not when a big corporation like McDonald’s does.

Let’s go back to salaries, the current minimum wage is £8.21/hour, or based on 40 hours/per week + NI contributions + Pensions would be around £19.6k, If the costs of one kiosk is around £10k, its cost would be recovered within a year and some would also defend that kiosks would make no mistakes, unlike humans.

Recently, I saw this super interesting video about Creator, a restaurant in San Francisco where burgers are made 100% by a machine, this is such an interesting and efficient concept. This machine can make an average of 120 burgers per hour, they will have 2 in their first restaurant. According to Mc Donald’s it takes them 112 seconds to make their cheese burger, I wonder how much would it take them if instead of human labour they used the same or a much evolved version of Creator‘s burger maker.

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So it scares the shit out of me, I suddenly think, what if Mc Donald’s use their kiosks in all their sites to take orders and those burger machines to substitute their kitchen team and then they would just need a few people to refill the machine with ingredients and a couple of supervisors to manage the smooth flow of full service. They could also automate where the robot leaves the food so customers could pick up their order directly and again that would save more and more money.

Again, I have this dilemma, as a restaurant consultant this sounds fantastic: perfect, super-efficient systems with very little room for mistakes. But then, as a normal human being I can’t stop thinking, what would happen with all those people that will not be able to have those jobs at McDonald’s, what if Burger King, Subway, KFC, Domino’s and all businesses do the same? Those are entry jobs that bring opportunities to millions of people all around the world. And then what if this scales up? Is there a plan B? Is anyone planning to implement some kind of “Universal Basic Income” for people instead? Or are we just going to make the lives of people that already have less opportunities even harder?

What if countries and governments made decisions based on people’s happiness and not on economic growth? I am sure that with the use of technology, profits will grow, but does McDonald’s need to make more than the £276 million they made in 2017 only in the UK? How many people are getting these profits? Isn’t it this contributing to the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer?

Plastic became popular in the 1960s and now we have a plastic island bigger than France floating in the Pacific ocean. It was efficient, light, convenient, saved costs and made sales increase, but look what happened…

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I don’t have all the answers but I definitely think we need to think of the impact of all our actions, since I was a kid that was something that my parents made clear, everything you do has an impact, and I would just hope that big corporations and governments would consider the consequences of their actions when they define their strategies for the future.

We can’t stop technology and I know we shouldn’t but until we have a plan to make sure there will not be negative consequences for a vast majority of people, I will continue to go to the front desk to be served by people and avoid automated ordering, check out machines and will do my best to support independent restaurants, pubs and cafes that are doing their best to make profits and not counting their millions.

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