Thursday, May 21, 2020

The Necessity of Automation

A few days ago, I discussed robotic busboys.  Improving the pay of service workers should be a high priority; we must take away one of the Democratic party's aggrieved victim classes and render the nationalized health care question moot.

There are experiments in robotic food prep underway (burgers for example), but busboys in restaurants are easy to automate, especially in an era where sanitizing tables is so important.  Most waitstaff are replaceable with on-table ordering, and some restaurants, even nice ones, are beginning to experiment with such technologies. Dishwashing is similarly well-suited to robotic replacement. 

Higher pay for the remaining restaurant employees: cooks, the waitstaff still required to answer questions (is this gluten free?) or deal with substitutions should be easier when fifteen employees are replaced by five. 

The restaurant might even be more profitable, even after the capital investment in robots.  Think of the time wasted in restaurants waiting for waitstaff to get around to your table, or for a table to be cleared.  This is time that tables are not available for other customers at peak demand times.  Higher pay for remaining employees makes better benefits, such as health insurance, possible. 

It is important that such solutions work within existing built infrastructure and capital; using existing tables, instead of requiring tables that flip up to empty.  If I had a few million dollars sitting around, I would be starting a company for the easy robots: busboys.

There are doubtless other service industries that can be automated.  Suggestions?


  1. This is actually a really *bad* idea along several fronts.

    One is that food service jobs are one of the few "entry level" jobs out there--easy to train people for, easy to gain competency in, and as you move from "part time job while I go to school" to "I enjoy doing this for a living" you can go from making beer money to actually (at least as a waiter or bartender) making reasonably good money.

    I have a cousin who used to make as much money bar-tending on Friday and Saturday nights in mid-range clubs as he did the rest of the week working for a financial institution as a manager.

    These entry level jobs are where kids learn the sorts of job skills that *cannot* be taught any other way. They learn that showing up on time has consequences. They learn what good and bad managers are like, they learn how to put on a happy face and do their job even when they are cranky. And they learn the repercussions of what happens when they don't follow the rules.

    Replacing them with robots breaks all of this, and for a REALLY stupid reason.

    Our parents, grand parents and great grandparents faced things like Polio, Smallpox, Rubella, Mumps, Measles and Rheumatic Fever. Don't let the media scare the shit out of you on this.

    And no, you can't automate "busboys" as easy as you'd think. In anything but the low end restaraunts busboys are apprentice waiters and/or waiters apprentices.

  2. Robots like standardization and consistency - the same size and configuration item in the same place each time, attached by the same methods; "entry-level AI" is, however, bringing more robot flexibility and adaptability. Way back when (1970s), robot mail carts followed a "painted on" track on the floor with UV light, stopping and beeping at office doors (there were stories about the mail carts being directed into offices, rest rooms and running in circles in lobbies by the mischievious re-painting of the tracks but I'll stick to my claim of ignorance of such things).

    Anyway, precise X-Y location data via RF or laser enables robot servers to easily deliver, and retrieve, standardized food containers, down to trays and individual dishes and/or even entire tabletops for "between diner" refreshes. It's a no-brainer to establish extremely precise placement locations with graphic recognition systems, or even magnets; look at semiconductor manufacturing for examples. Robots can work well in the dark, so cleaning can continue overnight after the humans have closed up and left.

    There needs to be supervisory human involvement somewhere - someone's dinner will be cold or not cooked to requested specs, there will be "secret menu" requests, Mr. & Mrs. Gotrocks will want special treatment, etc. - but even that can be established through "in-robot comms" - or a patron's coat or purse will fall into an aisle blocking a robot.

    Like all new technology, the problem won't be making it work but getting the users to willingly accept it, adapt to it and use it to its fullest. You'll know it's arrived completely when frequent diners start requesting tables in #11's service area.