The Robots Are Coming

Examining the give and take of tech.

White metallic robot with hand on chin on white background
Like it or not, the Terminators are on their way.

I have a friend who moved from Colorado to the Silicon Valley to work for what she described as “a cutting-edge food tech startup.” The business had recently taken a venture investment of $375 million and boasted a valuation of more than $2 billion. “This company is going to change the world,” she proclaimed. 

I was intrigued, of course, imagining a high-profile disruption in food that might make a dent in supply chain issues, long-distance distribution efficiencies, sustainable production capacity. “Amazing,” I said. “Tell me.” 

She lit up as she described it. “They’re building a fleet of pizza delivery vans with robots in the back. The pizzas get made while they’re being delivered—” She paused, gauging my reaction. “Why are you laughing?” she asked. 

“Oh…you’re serious.” 

Listen, I don’t ever want to be like one of the people who laughed at Thomas Edison in the days before he lit shit up, but robot pizza delivery struck me as a solution to a problem that wasn’t. And throwing the GDP of a small nation behind said problem? Well, that seems like a good example of everything that’s wrong with the world. 

Restaurateurs are a microcosm of humanity at large: We are, to varying degrees, simultaneously problem solvers and poets, scientists and artists, penny-pinchers and humanitarians.

I have another friend who refused to run his restaurant with anything more advanced than a pencil and notebook. His staff pressured him to install a POS system and he begrudgingly conceded, but outside of that—reservations, table management, staff scheduling, accounting, marketing—his business was entirely analog. “I don’t need to know that you’ve visited my joint 2.3 times in the last 45 days with an average spend of $23.65 to know that I want to buy you a drink,” he lamented.

The first friend’s company had an objective of fully automated delivery, with self-driving electric vans shuttling cyborg-made takeout around futuristic neighborhoods. The second one had an idyllic vision of storing only the data that can be held organically, of people actually having to remember things, and of living with all the human imperfections that go along with that. 

Neither of these companies are in business anymore. 

Animated still of futuristic George Jetson holding a plate of bacon and eggs.
Even George Jetson wants a home-cooked meal (and a break from the Food-a-Rac-a-Cycle) every once in while. /

I remember watching The Jetsons as a kid. How cool the future looked to me back then: flat screen TVs and video phones and flying cars. A conveyor belt to get you dressed. A mechanical arm to brush your teeth. But I also remember, even then, watching George Jetson eat his breakfast in a rush to the pneumatic tube—toast, eggs, bacon, and potatoes, all swallowed in a single pill—and thinking, “That kinda sucks.” 

Ah, tech. It’s said that science can progress only as fast as it takes a generation to die off. We can be slow to let go of the world we’ve known, reluctant to release the realities we’ve understood as fact. Those realities, after all, have gotten us this far. So many of us bemoan the passing of the good old days, rail against the incoming tide, and resist change even when we know it’s inevitable.

But can there be an ultimate balance between pristine efficiency and the human experience, or are we destined, at some point, to surrender even hospitality to the machines? 

A study just published in The Journal of Hospitality & Tourism Research titled, “How to Build a Better Robot…For Quick-Serve Restaurants,” suggests ambivalence on the consumer side. “Our findings showed that as long as the tech works well, customers don’t mind the idea of a robot taking their orders and cooking their food,” says Dina Marie V. Zemke, a co-author of the study. 

Zemke’s research was born of the “fight for $15”—and the idea that an increased across-the-board minimum wage would push the cost-benefit hiring analysis in favor of machines. You don’t have to be an economist to see it: The price of tech continues to come down as that of human labor increases. The tech gets better as it’s paid less. The flesh and bone staff? Not so much.

There’s no doubt that tech has already infiltrated our operations. Gone are the days, for example, when reservations required a real, live person manning the phone, a once person-to-person experience in which needs and desires were questioned and confirmed in real time. “Reservationist” was once an industry job title. That job’s evolution—or devolution, depending on your point of view—began with the answering machine and is now just a button at the bottom of your Google search. 

Therein lies the tech-touch paradox. Restaurateurs are a microcosm of humanity at large: We are, to varying degrees, simultaneously problem solvers and poets, scientists and artists, penny-pinchers and humanitarians. In our last issue, we asked a couple dozen industry folks to articulate their “why,” and the responses, while as varied as our respondents’ personalities, all seemed to have one common denominator: the unflinching desire to create, to convene, and to serve.

Is it possible for us to utilize technology to better meet that mission without the technology taking over? 

Famed political cartoonist Tom Toles, who is retiring after a 50-year career, recently told NPR’s Michel Martin he hopes to start an art and ideas retreat as his next endeavor. “[It’s a] pretty simple proposition that we’re entering an era where the robots are coming to do the work,” Toles predicted. “I say, and let them do it. I want to explore a life that consists of less work and more art and more creativity.” Along those same lines, Zemke discusses the idea of robots taking on the restaurant labor that most humans don’t want to do. “Things like mundane prep, dishwashing, cleaning…that can free restaurateurs up to focus on the things that are most important to them.” 

We humans, we’re just smart enough to create things that are smarter than us, and just dumb enough to come to rely on those things. 

It sounds nice, doesn’t it? The idea of the menial (yet essential) work being completed in the background while we entitled humans luxuriate in only the most fulfilling aspects of our existence? We’ve all seen this movie, though. And that’s not how it ends. 

Today, you can go online and find a free chess program that can beat most grandmasters—folks who have spent their entire lives perfecting the game, shut down by a few lines of code on a site funded, all too appropriately, by anti-anxiety pharmaceutical ads. We humans, we’re just smart enough to create things that are smarter than us, and just dumb enough to come to rely on those things. 

A big takeaway from Zemke’s study, she says, is that, “Everyone, whether they like it or not, is resigned to the fact that robotics are coming.” And while study participants across the board said they’d have no trouble frequenting an automated restaurant if the end result was good, consistent food, fewer mistakes, efficient service, and a lower price point, they also, perhaps ironically, expressed concern for what was going to happen to people when those benchmarks are reached. “There are the people who right now depend on those jobs,” she says, “but also the young people whose first job is in a restaurant. This is where they go to learn how to be an employee, and the joy of receiving a paycheck for hard work. What happens to society when those opportunities don’t exist anymore?” 

It’s estimated that 50 percent of American adults have worked, at one point in their lives, in some form of hospitality. If part of our unified goal as restaurateurs is to serve, what do things look like if we stop teaching that basic social skill? If we come to rely on our tech to serve us, then what do we become? 

Without a doubt, we as an industry will have more and more options to increase efficiencies and lower costs, all with the promise of making our lives better. If we believe our reason for doing what we do is important, we have to keep measuring our implementations against those reasons, or risk losing sight of them. There’s little doubt we’ll ultimately be able to mechanize everything. But as Zemke concludes, “Just because you can do it, doesn’t mean you should do it.”

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