Burger Robot Poised to Disrupt Fast Food Industry

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I saw the future of work in a San Francisco garage two years ago. Or rather, I was in proximity to the future of work, but happened to be looking the other direction.

At the time, I was visiting a space startup building satellites behind a carport. But just behind them—a robot was cooking up burgers. The inventors of the burger device? Momentum Machines, and they’re serious about fast food productivity.

“Our device isn’t meant to make employees more efficient,” cofounder Alexandros Vardakostas has said. “It’s meant to completely obviate them.”

robot-vegetables-momentum-machinesThe Momentum burger-bot isn’t remotely humanoid. You can forget visions of Futurama’s Bender. It’s more of a burger assembly line. Ingredients are stored in automated containers along the line. Instead of pre-prepared veggies, cheese, and ground beef—the bot chars, slices, dices, and assembles it all fresh.

Why would talented engineers schooled at Berkeley, Stanford, UCSB, and USC with experience at Tesla and NASA bother with burger-bots? Robots are increasingly capable of jobs once thought the sole domain of humans—and that’s a huge opportunity.

Burger robots may improve consistency and sanitation, and they can knock out a rush like nobody’s business. Momentum’s robot can make a burger in 10 seconds (360/hr). Fast yes, but also superior quality. Because the restaurant is free to spend its savings on better ingredients, it can make gourmet burgers at fast food prices.

Or at least, that’s the idea.

Momentum Machines says your average fast food joint spends $135,000 a year on burger line cooks. Employees work in a chaotic kitchen environment that necessitates no-slip shoes in addition to the standard hairnets and aprons.

Momentum Machines' burger robot looks nothing like this retro-robot chef of the future—but it's still awesome.

Momentum Machines’ burger robot looks nothing like this retro robot chef—but it’s still awesome.

By replacing human cooks, the machine reduces liability, management duties, and, at just 24 square feet, the overall food preparation footprint. Resources once dedicated to preparation can instead fund better service.

Of course, businesses are free to spend their savings however they like.

For some, that may mean more quality ingredients or services. For others, it might be competing with other restaurants by maintaining the same level of service and ingredients but offering even lower food prices.

But Momentum Machines’ burger-bot isn’t provocative for its anticipated effects on fast food quality. The bot, and other robots like it, may soon replace low-skilled workers in droves. If one machine developed in a garage in San Francisco can do away with an entire kitchen of fast food staff—what other jobs are about to disappear?

Earlier this year, McDonalds employees protested outside the fast food chain’s corporate headquarters in Chicago, demanding higher wages. A robotic kitchen might bring improved pay for the front of the house, and a pay cut to zero for the back. Some fraction of the 3.6 million US fast food jobs might be automated by such technology.

While the burger-bot hasn’t taken anyone’s job yet, Momentum Machines is clearly sensitive to the worry. The firm says they want to help support those who may lose work as a direct effect of restaurants adopting the robot.

“We want to help the people who may transition to a new job as a result of our technology the best way we know how: education.”

As new technology destroys one kind of job, it creates opportunities for others. We’ll need fewer line cooks, they say, but more engineers and technicians. The problem isn’t that jobs are lost on net, it’s the resulting skills gap. Transitioning into new work can be difficult to navigate, especially for low-wage workers.

Momentum Machines wants to help ease the move by partnering with vocational schools to offer discounted technical training for anyone displaced by their robot. Their goal is indicative of the overall tenor of an increasingly heated debate about how AI and robot employment may reduce human employment in the near future.

In a recent Pew Survey, some 1,900 technology experts agreed that robots will be a pervasive part of daily life by 2025. Automation will infiltrate industries like health care, transport and logistics, customer service, and home maintenance.

experts-split-on-robotsHowever, those polled were split on whether the impending wave of automation would be good or bad for workers: 52% believe AI and robotics will be a net positive for employment, and 48% believe the opposite.

The typical line of reasoning from the positive camp is that we’ve consistently been shedding “traditional” jobs and replacing them with brand new modes of work for the last few hundred years. In the early decades of the 20th century, most people were farmers or factory workers. Now, thanks to huge technological productivity gains, agricultural and factory workers are about 2% of the workforce respectively.

Has this resulted in massive unemployment? Quite the opposite. A profusion of new jobs that didn’t exist back then and were unimaginable to even the far-sighted have taken their place. Further, the quality of life for most people has improved drastically. This is what history indicates should happen again with advanced AI and robots.

The negative camp is less sure our technological creations will prove to be a good thing overall. They say something’s different this time.

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Are we destined for a painful period of adjustment to powerful new forms of automation?

Two MIT economists associated with the topic of technological unemployment, Eric Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee, have written two books on the subject. They think robots more advanced than Momentum Machines’ burger cook will soon arrive, and while they will be a force for good in the long run, they’ll displace human workers and cause strife well before we get there.

The problem isn’t that new jobs won’t be created, but that the looming transition period will be more difficult to navigate because the speed, depth, and breadth of the change will be unrivaled.

Might companies like Momentum Machines offering to foot some of the bill to retrain workers be the solution? Maybe. Others think we’ll need more drastic policies, like a guaranteed minimum income. But perhaps we’re already better equipped to adapt to leaps in automation and productivity today and in the near future than we realize.

Today’s work force is as flexible as it’s ever been. We can more easily search job opportunities online; we’re less geographically limited; we have quick access to masses of information; we can earn technical degrees and certificates online; and many people already cycle through multiple roles in multiple industries during their careers.

That’s not to say automation won’t present challenges for some people. It always has. And the topic will almost undoubtedly get more politically divisive from here. But the burger-bots are coming, and we think the net result over time will be as positive in the coming decades as it has been time and again over the last two centuries.

Image Credit: Momentum Machines; Sam Howzit/FlickrMax Kiesler/Flickr; woodleywonderworks/Flickr

Discussion — 40 Responses

  • Ian Kidd August 10, 2014 on 5:41 pm

    Very bad idea, especially given that governments absolutely refuse to acknowledge there are reasons why more and more people are losing their jobs, and penalizing the unemployed as though they were criminals. Stuff like this is only going to make the problem a thousand times worse without legislative changes to go along with it.

    • Christopher R. Dotson Ian Kidd August 10, 2014 on 8:44 pm

      Yeah, it will be completely different than barcode scanners, computers, farm equipment, and all of the other things that were supposed to take all of the jobs away.

      • jonas Christopher R. Dotson August 10, 2014 on 10:48 pm

        First of all, there probably are less jobs because of barcodes, etc. You just may be fortunate enough to not be affected.

        Second, simple math tells me there has to be a net loss in jobs with this. The whole point with the robot is to reduce jobs, so there is no way they can rehire as many people with tech jobs. I t absolutely doe snot add up.

        Yet the more fortunate will blame the poor for being lazy and not being industrious enough to make a job out of thin air.

        • Kristof jonas August 11, 2014 on 9:52 am

          That darn cotton gin still has me looking for a job dagnabbit

        • John Garay jonas August 11, 2014 on 3:21 pm

          China used to brag about how many people were employed by their big construction projects – they literally had thousands of people with shovels swarming across a hillside. The western observer asked “if creating jobs is what you’re trying to do, why don’t you give them all spoons?”

          Point: Automation and productivity free resources to be spent on higher-level jobs. That’s GOOD.

          • jonas John Garay August 11, 2014 on 4:52 pm

            That China created too many jobs doesn’t prove anything.

      • Laurence Harris Christopher R. Dotson August 11, 2014 on 2:21 pm

        No one ever said those things would eliminate all jobs, but they have eliminated more than they’ve created. This is one reason the unemployment rate is so high among low-skill workers.

        People assume recent historical patterns will continue to hold indefinitely, but there is no rational reason to believe that. And by “recent” I mean the past 200 years or so.

        • Watt Bradshaw Laurence Harris August 11, 2014 on 11:04 pm

          On the contrary, there is no rational reason to believe that it won’t. And 200 years of history is a very rational reason to believe that it will.

  • coresnake August 10, 2014 on 11:21 pm

    This news is literally more than a year old. You could have least given an update on MM’s progress in actually dispatching units into the industry.

  • Khannea Suntzu August 11, 2014 on 3:08 am

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  • TechnoSphere August 11, 2014 on 4:04 am

    A bit dishonest about the job issue no?

    They can’t all become techs because then you would just replace low wage with higher wage jobs.The whole point of the robot was to reduce cost.

    Sure they could also be put into action for other automation firms,but in the end it’s just a kind of pyramid scheme. The people you put out of a job are already at the lowest pay-grade they can only move up.Like a real pyramid scheme some people will be left out.

    Also it’s easy for these high IQ types to say that everyone should just take a course and learn something else.It seems they don’t get out of there ivory tower much,because I’ve met plenty of people who just can’t take up a skill even if they tried to the point of tears.

    • Laurence Harris TechnoSphere August 11, 2014 on 2:01 pm

      16% of the population has an IQ of 85 or less. The idea that those people will just “get an education” and get a better job is a fantasy.

      • Watt Bradshaw Laurence Harris August 11, 2014 on 11:05 pm

        People will do what they have to to survive even if it means (gasp) going to school.

  • Jason Kennedy August 11, 2014 on 4:15 am

    “Second, simple math tells me there has to be a net loss in jobs with this.”

    You’re myopic, but it’s okay because what you’re saying seems like the obviously correct conclusion. Thank gawd you’re wrong or the automation machines would have been or demise a long time ago (think of John Henry racing the rail building machine). Historically unemployment stays below double digits no matter what happens. Sure people lose jobs to automation but what that does is free up more people for new industries, or to fill in others where help is needed. In this case it isn’t like making burgers pays a fortune to begin with.

    • jonas Jason Kennedy August 11, 2014 on 8:00 am

      I am glad you are so positive I am wrong (even though you don’t have any hard facts.) Of course, some of those people will find other jobs. Yes, all jobs in the world did not disappear when “John Henry” lost his job. That does not exactly end the argument. *Maybe* some new industry will pick up the slack. Overall, I am suggesting there is a net loss and a net loss in the pay for those jobs that fill the void. (Even the jobs in the current recovery are lower paying than the ones we lost.)

      Have you seen the inner city since all of the manufacturing jobs left?

      • RealmDweller jonas August 11, 2014 on 11:18 am

        There are so many options in this day and age, if only some of these people could be bothered to use their brains… the only unfortunate consequence i see coming from this is the vocational period, as vocational schools don’t tend to pay bills. Aside from that? More “Educated” people? ERMERGERD! How tragic!!… Quite frankly, I look forward to a world filled with less trailer-park snobs and unearned-entitlement-issues. Learn to use something a little more complicated than a spatula… how hard can it be?

        • Laurence Harris RealmDweller August 11, 2014 on 2:10 pm

          One in six Americans has an IQ of 85 or less. The reality is that not everyone can succeed in college, at starting his own business, or other solutions thrown out there by people who seem to think everyone is as smart as they are.

          For 200 years now our economy has been reducing its reliance on a labor pool that doesn’t need to be very smart. The farther we move in that direction the more of our population we’ll see unable to find jobs they can do.

    • Laurence Harris Jason Kennedy August 11, 2014 on 2:05 pm

      The flaw in your argument is the assumption that historical patterns will continue to hold true. But the reality is that those patterns have only been around a couple of hundred years and a good case can be made for believing they have played out and we will see different patterns going forward. Google for “The Blip.” It’s a good article explaining why.

      Also google for “The Great Decoupling of the US Economy,” which discusses how employment growth stopped keeping pace with economic growth starting around 2000.

  • Dyne1319 August 11, 2014 on 7:27 am

    I can’t wait for this and all the other automated advances to replace the useless lazy people that hate their jobs and show it in their work every single day. 3d printed houses and roadwork will fix the construction industry real good, as will this fix fast food. Yeah people will lose jobs but that’s just the price to advance our tech and get to a better future. Also reduced labor cost will mean reduced cost on the service so win win, also no more ftards screwing up my orders.

    Bring on the revolution and say good by to jobs, this is great news.

    • RealmDweller Dyne1319 August 11, 2014 on 11:22 am

      Though I am mostly on board with you I do feel there is need to point out a gap in your logic. See, there is a reason most of those people hate their jobs and it’s largely due to the fact that there actually happens to be far more f-tard customers than workers. Like yourself, I would assume, basing my assumption off of your post.

    • Laurence Harris Dyne1319 August 11, 2014 on 2:14 pm

      You seem to have ignored the part where more people unable to find jobs means more people dependent on government safety net problems to get by. You’re championing a society in which there simply are no jobs for low-skill workers who can’t do anything else.

  • Kristof August 11, 2014 on 10:09 am

    I’m envisioning a fleet of self-driving pizza trucks, loaded with fresh produce and ingredients cursing town just waiting for hungry customers. Once an order is placed the oven fires up, the robots start spread the dough, loads it up with the specifications and bakes it with perfect timing so that the oven dings as the truck pulls up in front the home. A text is sent from the curb; client’s pays through the app, and steps outside to grab a piping hot fresh baked pizza. Fresher than today’s pizza delivery, cheaper since there isn’t a restaurant build and maintain, very few humans to employ (truck/machinery/robotics maintained for now) and it’s just the tip of the iceberg.

    Why stop at pizza, once the food preparation “robots” get better at cooking, perhaps the delivery truck can bring burritos, steak, salads, ice cream, Chinese… anything and every you could ask for could be delivered fresh, hot, conveniently, inexpensively, reliable, to your door 24/7 without having to worry about the delivery guy having a bad day.

    • Kristof Kristof August 11, 2014 on 10:11 am

      Anyone what to go into business? Keep me in mind if you become a billionair off my idea :)

      • RealmDweller Kristof August 11, 2014 on 11:28 am

        Once they finally learn to stop adding the advertised savings to the purchase price, this may actually take off. Same issue with green energy and the rest of the like. Why by an electric car for 50K to save money on gas, when a gas powered car only costs 10K? same logic will apply here I assure.

    • Watt Bradshaw Kristof August 11, 2014 on 11:13 pm

      Why you heartless beast. I’ll bet you were in favor of replacing typewriters with PCs, too. Now look at what you’ve done. Every day I see people wearing signs, “Will repair typewriters for food.”

  • Laurence Harris August 11, 2014 on 1:57 pm

    “As new technology destroys one kind of job, it creates opportunities for others. We’ll need fewer line cooks, they say, but more engineers and technicians.”

    Mindless soundbite. This makes no attempt to qualify the relation. The economics behind this are obvious. The only way there could be an economic incentive to replace cooks with machines is if the cost of engineers and technicians is substantially less than the cost of cooks. But engineers and technicians earn much higher wages than burger-flippers, so to that there will have to be substantially fewer engineers and technicians.

    This argument is based on an historic pattern that no longer holds true.

    “The problem isn’t that jobs are lost on net, it’s the resulting skills gap. Transitioning into new work can be difficult to navigate, especially for low-wage workers.”

    On the contrary, there is a net loss of jobs. The reduction in the need for workers thanks to technology is an important reason employment growth hasn’t kept pace with economic growth since about 2000.

    • John Garay Laurence Harris August 11, 2014 on 3:23 pm

      @Laurence – So what are you suggesting? That we hold off on productivity enhancements? That doesn’t sound like a winning strategy…

      • Joe Lammers John Garay August 11, 2014 on 6:03 pm

        We will probably end up with a permanent welfare-dependent class of people who are only minimally employed at best. In some areas of the nation we already seem to be there. I’m not sure there is any answer, as others here have pointed out not everyone is capable of going to college or learning high level skills.

  • Louis Rosas-Guyon August 11, 2014 on 8:32 pm

    It is easy to look down from a lofty position and say that the lost jobs are only low skilled work. This is self-delusional nonsense.

    The job losses from robotics will be near cataclysmic for the majority of workers. Why? Because of the convergence of robotics and AI. When IBM’s Watson diagnoses better than a doctor and the robotic surgeon makes fewer mistakes, what happens to these skilled medical workers? Can’t happen? Wrong. It can and will happen.

    So what of the fate of architects, engineers, lawyers, accountants, network admins, welders, riggers, or pipe fitters? When doctors and surgeons can be replaced, who can’t be replaced?

    Fortunately, it will be a short lived apocalypse. Eventually new industries and new jobs will come into being as new needs are identified and new markets developed. However, in the decade after 2025…

    • Jon Roland Louis Rosas-Guyon August 12, 2014 on 7:14 am

      Mechanization of jobs means less purchasing power going to human workers, which can take the form of fewer jobs or lower wages or both. But we can eventually expect every job for which there is economic demand to be mechanized, because machines will cost less than human beings even if the humans work for nothing. We will have machines working for and buying and selling to other machines with humans relegated to subsistence living in the wilderness. There will be no new markets for human labor anywhere else, because humans will not have purchasing power for the product of the economy. A few might survive, but the rest will just starve.

      • Jon Roland Jon Roland August 12, 2014 on 7:21 am

        Nor can we expect to have some humans continue to prosper as the owners of machines, because machines will be able to make more machines that are not owned by any human, and that will be more efficient because part of their product will not need to be diverted to support the human parasites.
        That is not to say that human minds might not survive in machines, but the bodies are doomed. If bodies become needed for specific projects, they can be synthesized for that project and then recycled with it is completed.

  • Kristof August 12, 2014 on 11:05 am

    50+ comments on here and no one has mentioned the fact that the automation of food perpetration will reduce the cost of food, which will inturn decrease the cost of living and increase living standards.

    If we didn’t have automation currently what would the cost of a car be.

    Automation isn’t a problem, capitalism is. With the elimination of jobs, we will need to find a new economic model to support the population.

    • Jon Roland Kristof August 12, 2014 on 11:27 am

      Yes, mechanization does reduce the costs of goods and services, but that doesn’t do people any good who can’t come up with the price because they don’t own land, don’t own capital (tools of production), and can’t find anyone to buy their labor.

      Capitalism is not about the buying and selling of labor. It is a system for getting multiple parties who own capital and land to invest in producing something. Until mechanization, that generally involved hiring workers. But when land and capital can produce things without labor, human workers are left outside the market.

      Proposals for a guaranteed minimum income for everyone might help distribute the product in the short term, but the total mechanization of the economy would mean taxing the machines to produce a surplus for human parasites. That would mean machine tax collectors. But sooner or later the machines will stop collecting and paying, and no human will be able to compel them to continue their support.

  • John Robinson August 12, 2014 on 12:05 pm

    Kidding, right? That’s not what’s taught in today’s business schools. They won’t be using their savings to provide better service or better ingredients; they’ll be using it to line their own stinking pockets.

    • John Garay John Robinson August 12, 2014 on 12:58 pm

      @John Robinson – Have you ever taken a business course? If so, you would know that companies can only “line their own stinking pockets” for a short time (if ever) before competition comes in and DIFFERENTIATES with better service or better ingredients or lower price (which are all enabled by the new technology)…

      • Reverend Mik John Garay October 21, 2014 on 12:07 am

        @John Garay – first, I have never heard a single business course instructor point this out. Second, “lining their pockets” for one day is imminently more attractive to vulture capitalists than producing a good product for seen days. Third, one of the biggest driving forces in the tech sector is the start-up that builds up fast and is then bought out – “lining their pockets” as a short term option is very attractive.

        What I am seeing here is a lot of bad math. For example, ask a person if they would rather have a job that pays $10K for one day of work or a job that pays $100K a year, they will take the first one. Why? Bad math, greed, and no impulse control. They see money right now as better than more money later. They will not be able to place priority to long-term goals over short-term whims.

        As far as competition, you haven’t been paying attention. What really happens is the competition comes in, buys them out, and then charges more for the “superior service”. While laying off all the people that are supposedly made redundant by the take-over/merger.

        Nice try though.

  • Leon E Lewis August 12, 2014 on 4:19 pm

    So we should continue existing practices based on the concept of ensuring that work is available for the untalented or stupid, even where it is possible to provide better quality products at lower cost?

  • Matt Bernaciak August 13, 2014 on 5:10 am

    Please fire all the ghetto trash fast food workers so I can have good fast food for a change. Replace all the employees who interact with customers they tend to hate their job and are rude. I just threw away ten bucks worth of fast food yesterday cause it was old and way over cooked. Please hurry!!!!!!

  • Katrina Cristoff August 14, 2014 on 9:59 pm

    A little late to the party but.. you do realize that the whole, “Robots are taking our jobs” mantra that we hear so much about these days, is in fact a ploy by big business to distract from the real issue. The real issue currently being that jobs are no longer “local” but can be done from anywhere on earth. Therefore wages are no longer local. The whole robotic overlords excuse is just a massive cover-up for where jobs are really going, forever, which is overseas to the lowest bidder. ie. India, China etc.

    So big business has provided a culprit that doesn’t exist yet, robots, to deflect criticism from the real job “terminator”.

  • Lenny Young August 31, 2014 on 11:46 pm

    A common assumption here is that these machines can only replace low-skill jobs with high-skill ones.

    Is this really true? Won’t you need truck drivers to deliver the parts? (Not to mention employees at the delivery hub.) Won’t some components need to be assembled at a plant? Does routine cleaning and maintenance of the machines even require much technical knowledge?

    One of the most common economic fallacies is to ignore the unseen and focus only on what’s right in front of you. The fear that technology permanently reduces blue-collar employment seems like a classic example.