At first it was just Flippy the Burgerbot, the one-armed automated burger-flipper that proved itself faster than fifteen-dollar-per-hour humans with two fully-functional arms. But what if you want fries with that? “Coming right up,” says Miso Robotics, which makes the cyborg workers for White Castle and other restaurant chains in the burger business. Flippy has been promoted to fry cook. The $30,000 machine can now dunk baskets of frozen fries into boiling hot grease, then pull them out and shake them off, ready to serve up the golden brown goodies to customers.
The robot revolution doesn’t end there. Now Chipotle, the national burrito chain, is testing its own Miso Robotics employee: Chippy the Tortilla Bot. The skill set is almost identical to that of Flippy the Fry Cook, so adapting the droid for Chipotle wasn’t much of a stretch.
And with minimum wage going up across the country, and restaurant operators still struggling to hire and train staff, robot workers always show up on time, work faster and make fewer mistakes are starting to look more and more attractive.
Restaurants aren’t the only businesses getting in on the act. In Florida, strawberry farmers will soon use Barry the Berry Bot to supplement, and eventually replace humans. In fact, there are several companies working to perfect their own versions of “Barry,” including a local Florida company that is field testing it’s eighth iteration of an automated strawberry picker. Meanwhile, other companies have their own versions. Many farmers won’t even need to buy a robot. They’ll just hire the robot harvesters to show up and pick their crops.
Like the labor shortage in restaurants, farm operations are starting to notice a trend, too. According to data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), the average age of migrant workers and farm laborers in general is climbing because fewer young people are entering the agricultural work force. For strawberry-rich Florida, that means farmers are going to have to get creative if they want to keep the cost of strawberries low enough to remain a regular staple in American diets. If the price gets too high, strawberries become a luxury item and households find ways to do without.
The revolution isn’t about to stop. Robots aren’t just working on farms or in restaurant kitchens, they’re already moving into the dining room, too. They’re slowly taking over mundane security tasks, and while some say they’re not a replacement for humans, they likely will be soon.
The American economy is always evolving, and robot displacement of human workers has been happening for decades. The real change in recent years is that the robotic skill sets are growing at such a rapid pace that they are growing increasing capable of disrupting the human labor force in ways previously not imagined.