Will This Burger Bot Smash America's Fast Food Jobs?

Cleaner, faster, better—but at what cost?

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“Anything you can do I can do better. I can do anything better than you.”

Forget Annie Oakley. That refrain may best apply to the robots that are gradually taking our jobs. The latest workers on the chopping block? Fast food line cooks.

A San Francisco startup called Momentum Machines has built a robot that can do anything restaurant employees can do, except better. That’s not hyperbole on our part—it’s a promise straight from the company’s website.

The robot is essentially a large, self-contained assembly line. It can create custom grinds for individual customers (e.g., a patty with 1/3 pork or bison meat), cook the patties, slice toppings and place them onto the burger, and even bag them. There! No more “sandwich labor” necessary.

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According to the company, the burger-making bot is also more consistent and more sanitary than human chefs, and—here’s the meat of the matter—can produce roughly 360 burgers per hour, or one burger every 10 seconds.

Momentum co-founder Alexandros Vardakostas doesn't beat about the bush in explaining the ultimate goal of his machine:

“Our device isn’t meant to make employees more efficient,” he told Xconomy. “It’s meant to completely obviate them.”

“Our device isn’t meant to make employees more efficient. It’s meant to completely obviate them.”

Sounds pretty evil, right? Serious supervillain stuff.

But while the immediate implications for fast food workers are grim, the long-term effects are less clear. Will mass automation of low-wage work lead to widespread unemployment and social decay, or will the displaced workers simply move into new fields spun off from this so-called "third industrial revolution"?

Momentum addresses this question on its website, and even pledges to offer help to line cooks who lose their jobs to more efficient robot chefs:

"Our goal is to offer discounted technical training to any former line cook of a restaurant that uses our device. We will certainly need more engineers to design new devices and technicians to service a growing line of automated restaurant solutions."

The company goes on to argue that this sort of thing is nothing new, and that economic theory says giving these jobs to machines is actually a positive thing for the labor market:

“The issue of machines and job displacement has been around for centuries and economists generally accept that technology like ours actually causes an increase in employment. The three factors that contribute to this are 1. the company that makes the robots must hire new employees, 2. the restaurant that uses our robots can expand their frontiers of production which requires hiring more people, and 3. the general public saves money on the reduced cost of our burgers.”

It's a self-serving argument, but one that may have real merit. Still, only time will tell whether our robot underlings will guide us to a Star Trek–style utopia or a world that looks more like The Matrix. Most likely, we'll end up somewhere in between.

Images: Momentum Machines

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