Are Fast Food Strikes Quickening Robot Takeover?

Jack Goldsmith

Jack Goldsmith is the Learned Hand Professor of Law at Harvard Law School, where he teaches and writes about national security law, international law, internet law, and, recently, labor history.  Before coming to Harvard, Professor Goldsmith served as Assistant Attorney General, Office of Legal Counsel from 2003-2004, and Special Counsel to the Department of Defense from 2002-2003.

The fast food strikes have invited a spate of stories on whether the push for higher wages will quicken the robot takeover of these jobs.  Last week the restaurant lobby Employment Policies Institute published this ominous ad in the WSJ:


The ad invited pushback.  Eleazar David Menendez at the Huffington Post and Dan Seitz of Uproxx maintain that the relevant robot technology isn’t very good right now.  Perhaps, but touch screen servers are on the rise, machines can do more-and-more burger-related tasks, robots have already taken over other restaurant tasks, and the technology will, I think, get better and cheaper faster than Menendez and Seitz think.  A better argument, but not one better for fast food workers, comes from Meghan Neal at the tech site Motherboard.  Neal acknowledges that robots are taking over more and more fast food tasks, especially in Europe and Asia.  But she says the rise of robotics will create other jobs:

No doubt, society’s cruising toward an automated future, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves. The dystopian (or utopian, depending who you ask) future robot workforce hasn’t completely emerged from the realm of sci-fi yet. For one, where are the robots coming from? Someone has to manufacture and program them, which means jobs. Also, there are still plenty of menial tasks a computer can’t handle. A touch screen can’t clean tables, mop floors, or flip burgers—and they’re terrible at customer service.


What’s more, there’s no proof that more robots equal less jobs. As a New York Times editorial pointed out this week, there isn’t a finite amount of labor. Tasks that require problem-solving, dexterity, and certain skills—even if not higher education—are still outside the realm of what machines can easily replace.


“Labor-saving technological change necessarily displaces workers performing certain tasks—that’s where the gains in productivity come from—but over the long run, it generates new products and services that raise national income and increase the overall demand for labor,” wrote the Times.


So far, so true, mounting research suggests. Michael Reich, coauthor of a study by the National Employment Law Project told Slate, “Technology has been increasing restaurant productivity for some time—think of computerized ordering of supplies, Open Table and Yelp and electronic ovens—but that has not translated into lower employment in the aggregate. Indeed, employment in restaurants has been growing along with the use of technology.

Not much comfort for low-skill workers in the fast food industry, but I do think that the robot takeover of these jobs is inevitable, and will probably happen soon.   I’m not quite sure what the concrete aim of the fast foods strikes is, but I am even less sure what fast food workers and their labor leaders plan to do about robots.

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