What looks like a great idea on paper at first doesn’t always look as good on closer inspection. A restaurant that just opened in China is an example of this.
To be sure, this is not your garden variety restaurant. It is being billed as one of the world’s first robot-powered eateries, and it is contactless to boot - an important consideration these days.
By anyone’s standards, the idea is intriguing. Customers can choose their meals from a menu of 200 items, ranging from traditional Chinese dishes to fast foods and other hot meals. A “staff” of more than 20 robots prepares these, and some are ready in as little as 20 seconds.
According to the Qianxi Robot Catering Group, a subsidiary of Country Garden, this is the first robot-powered restaurant in the Guangdong city of Shunde and one of the first in the world.
Zhao Chunsheng, a robot specialist and professor at the Chinese Academy of Sciences, said, “The Qianxi robot restaurant has the best run, most advanced technology with a vast product lineup. It fills a market gap and will add value to industry development as well.”
Automating restaurants is not a new idea. Years ago, a company called Horn & Hardart operated “automats,” which had a very simple form of automation. H&H sold tasty food at reasonable prices and was very popular, and the company’s stock did very well for a time. Subsequently, the combination of rising food prices and rents, and a trend toward more elaborate meals, forced H&H to close shop.
But the idea of automating restaurants never disappeared and has recently become more popular. For example, around two years ago, Flippy, a robot that grills and flips burgers, was “hired” at a California fast food restaurant. Flippy uses thermal imaging and 3D optics to sense exactly when hamburger patties need to be flipped and removed from the grill.
Robots To The Rescue?
The restaurant industry, anxious to keep costs down, has been planning for increased automation for years. The days when a customer could sit down at his or her favorite table, chat with a waiter, and say, “I think I’ll have the usual tonight, Charlie,” are coming to an end. The onset of COVID-19 is accelerating this trend and both fast food stores and full-service restaurants are introducing more automation.
Kentucky Fried Chicken’s (KFC) recently opened “restaurant of the future” in Moscow is an example of what lies ahead in both the industry and in America. In this new normal, stores will be characterized by automation and there will be little or no interaction between customers and employees, NBC News reports.
At the Moscow KFC, the chicken is fried and the sides prepared by humans; everything else is automated. The order is filled, placed on a conveyor belt, and moved to the front of the store. A robotic arm waits for it, grabs it off a conveyor belt, and places it into a package.
Customers use their credit/debit cards to pay and retrieve their orders through a facial recognition system. A KFC spokesperson told NBC that “the contactless store is the future of frontend fast-food restaurants (in part) because it’s more sanitary than one with human intervention.”
So what could be bad about restaurants that can prepare and serve food faster, cheaper, and cleaner than they have until now?
Here’s how Zero Hedge answered this question. “The new automated KFC restaurant in Moscow is a glimpse of what is coming to America: massive job losses because of all the new technology being introduced in restaurants and in other industries, too.
“Disbanding human cashiers and order preppers at the front of a fast-food store will be the next big trend in the industry through 2030. Making these restaurants contactless between customers and employees will lower the probabilities of transmitting the virus. But this will come at a terrible cost in job losses.” And it’s not just restaurants that will increase automation and artificial intelligence.
Studies forecast that millions of jobs will be displaced in the coming years – so many jobs may be lost that governments may be forced to introduce universal basic income – a system where people receive money without working.
The world’s appetite for automation is growing and it’s no longer limited to entry-level jobs,” Abishur Prakash, a geopolitical futurist at the Center for Innovating the Future, told the Asia Times. “Everyone could be on the chopping block because the pandemic has fundamentally changed how businesses operate.”
Follow The Money
Some studies indicate that robots and artificial intelligence could displace as many as 20 million jobs in the US by 2030. It’s projected that an incredible 51 million jobs could disappear in Europe for the same reasons [with the virus an additional factor).
Possible job losses in China also could be staggering, although there are no specific estimates available. However, automation is being introduced in all areas of that economy and society at a mind-boggling pace; already there are AI news anchors, health clinics, and robot-run factories, and China continues to automate at an astonishing pace. More than 650,000 robots went online in 2018 alone.
“This could transform politics in China,” says Prakash. “This will create a new kind of economy, which in turn could change domestic politics, trade deals, and foreign policy.”
It’s also creating other trends. The number of people becoming hostile to automation in general, and “robophobia” in particular, is growing very quickly.
“The changing nature of work is generating fears about mass unemployment,” the World Bank stated in a report last year. “These trends are straining the relationships among citizens, firms and governments across the globe.”
There is one silver lining in this forecasted storm: Some new jobs will be created in the process of replacing others that are lost, including programmers and mechanics.
As in the past, what is a great opportunity for some is a nightmare for others. But hopefully there will be many more opportunities than nightmares ahead. Pleasant dreams!