By Nicholas Varchaver
May 14, 2017

Good Morning.

It was another week in which the intensity of the machinations in Washington, D.C., seemed to vacuum up much of the energy of the press. Perhaps as a consequence, I encountered—or maybe just noticed—fewer weighty business-related articles. The one that struck me the most, in Lucky Peach, is entitled “Press The Button.” It examines the rise of automation in restaurants. Today, nearly 5,000 Chili’s, Outback, Red Robin, and Applebee’s restaurants have tablet computers deployed at tables, allowing customers to order—or pay—when they want to. “In the fancier precincts of the food-service world,” the article notes, “where watching a barista spend four minutes prepping a pour-over coffee is a customer’s idea of a good time, robots might not seem like the future of food culture. But spend some time at the restaurants where the majority of Americans eat every day, and you’ll catch a distinct whiff of automation in the air.”

The story explores what this means for customers (speed, convenience, and extra fun, since the tablets can also run games), restaurant owners (added revenues, since the technology seems to encourage customers to order and tip more), and workers (there the news is less good). And it goes on to discuss automation and employment more broadly:

The researchers ranked 702 separate occupations by their probability of being automated, on a scale from 0 (“not computerizable”) to 1 (“computerizable”). Jobs that required creativity, social skills, complicated motor skills, or the ability to navigate around an “unstructured work environment” got lower scores, since computers and robots are still fairly dull and clumsy, and will be for the foreseeable future.

So “chefs and head cooks” and “cooks, private household,” for instance, were both ranked toward the top, far higher than “economists,” “historians,” and “crossing guards,” thanks to the creativity and motor control necessary for high-level cooking. Restaurant managers, or “first-line supervisors of food preparation and serving workers,” got ranked somewhere in the middle, less likely to be automated than “embalmers,” but slightly more likely than “lifeguards, ski patrol, and other recreational protective service workers.” “Waiters and waitresses,” on the other hand, scored a precariously high .94, making their jobs safer than the apparently easy-to-automate “nuclear power reactor operators” and “umpires, referees, and other sports officials,” but only by a nose.

 

Most people, I assume, are more likely to crave human interaction with a server than with your average umpire or nuclear reactor operator (now, alas, associated in the public consciousness with Homer Simpson—d’oh!). But before long, it seems, we’ll not only order on-screen but receive our order via conveyor belt.

 

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