If fast food workers win the fight for a $15 minimum wage, it’s not going to be much of a win, since restaurants can just replace them with robots.
Momentum Machines introduced its fully autonomous burger bot in 2012, and now, with news of an $18 million venture capital funding round, it’s one step closer to opening its flagship San Francisco restaurant based around the prototype, which has been in the works since June of last year.
Momentum Machines is made up of roboticists from Berkeley, Stanford, Tesla and NASA and counts the former head of research and development at Fat Duck among its advisers.
No word yet on whether anybody else in the restaurant industry is ready to adopt the bot, but McDonald’s definitely has an eye on it. The $35,000 robot, equipped with AI smart technology, costs less than a year’s pay for a $15 minimum wage worker, is more sanitary and makes better burgers faster, to boot. It could replace two to three full-time line cooks and save a total of $90,000 in training, salaries and overhead costs. That’s per franchise, per year.
“It’s cheaper to buy a $35,000 robotic arm than it is to hire an employee who’s inefficient making $15 an hour bagging French fries,” said former McDonald’s CEO Ed Rensi.
As for the $15 minimum wage, Rensi said, “It’s nonsense and it’s very destructive and it’s inflationary and it’s going to cause a job loss across this country like you’re not going to believe.”
Momentum Machines’ 24-square-foot bot can make almost 400 perfect burgers in an hour; that’s one every 10 seconds. Diners can customize the proportions of beef, pork or bison in their patty. Then they can top the freshly ground, freshly grilled meat with whatever produce, seasonings or sauces they want, finally couching it all in a toasted brioche bun.
The bot even nicely wraps and bags the burgers before they’re served.
“Our device isn’t meant to make employees more efficient,” Momentum Machines Co-Founder Alexandros Vardakostas told Xconomy in 2012. “It’s meant to completely obviate them.”
But the bot may have to prove itself first at Momentum Machines’ future restaurant. Whenever it finally comes to fruition.
The Google-backed company applied for a building permit last June to convert a ground floor retail space at 680 Folsom Street in the South of Market (SoMa) neighborhood of San Francisco. Around the same time, it listed a job posting on Craigslist — not for burger flippers, but for a “restaurant generalist.”
What does that even mean? Well, like their future coworkers, the ideal candidate should be “autonomous,” said the ad, which has since expired — no word on whether a hire was made. Business Insider, however, preserved some of the wording.
The restaurant generalist will learn about every aspect of running a San Francisco restaurant, from taking orders to scheduling shifts to, occasionally, taking out trash or tidying up. Plus, they’ll be picking up some skills that most burger-flippers don’t: software troubleshooting, market research and product development.
In fact, due to the need for those exact skill sets, Momentum Machines claimed that using artificial intelligence in the kitchen could, counterintuitively, promote job growth. While line cooks are out, the company will have to hire new employees to continue developing technology and to staff additional restaurant locations. After all, this is a burger robot, not a cashier or custodian bot — someone still has to do those jobs.
“The issue of machines and job displacement has been around for centuries,” said Momentum Machines, “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,” the company said. “This saved money can then be spent on the rest of the economy.”