Burger-Flipping Robot: The Minimum Wage and Unintended Consequences.

San Francisco-based tech firm Momentum Machines has recently unveiled a burger-preparation machine capable of producing approximately 360 “customized” gourmet burgers per hour. It does this without any human aid at all. Such a machine has the potential to eventually replace millions of food-service workers across the globe. The final product looks like this:

I’d need to taste it to be sure, but that certainly looks like a tasty burger to me.

As the press release from the Momentum Machines website declares:

Fast food doesn’t have to have a negative connotation anymore. With our technology, a restaurant can offer gourmet quality burgers at fast food prices.

Our alpha machine frees up all of the hamburger line cooks in a restaurant.

It does everything employees can do except better:

  • it slices toppings like tomatoes and pickles immediately before it places the slice onto your burger, giving you the freshest burger possible.
  • our next revision will offer custom meat grinds for every single customer. Want a patty with 1/3 pork and 2/3 bison ground to order? No problem.
  • Also, our next revision will use gourmet cooking techniques never before used in a fast food restaurant, giving the patty the perfect char but keeping in all the juices.
  • it’s more consistent, more sanitary, and can produce ~360 hamburgers per hour.

The labor savings allow a restaurant to spend approximately twice as much on high quality ingredients and the gourmet cooking techniques make the ingredients taste that much better.

I have no doubt that we will eventually begin to see machines such as these entering the mainstream fast food marketplace. When that time comes, anti-technology Luddites will no doubt freak out over the jobs of the humans being replaced. They will call the introduction of the machines an affront to national prosperity and the lifestyle of the working man. They will likely claim, therefore, that the use of such machines should be outlawed or restricted in an attempt to “make work” for humans.

Let me drill this idea into your skull: If a human worker can be replaced by a machine, this is a good thing. If a task is so mundane that a machine can replace a human laborer, than it is good that the human can be relieved of such work. This is because human labor is the most versatile tool on the face of the earth. Humans can adapt to work in zillions of different capacities and methods. At any given time, there are jobs that only a human can perform, and other jobs that only a human can perform well. Introducing machines to perform mundane work frees up labor to work in fields that can make better use of unique human talents. The influx of workers into these new fields will bring the prices of their services and offerings down. This process improves the quality of life for customers across the spectrum, but most especially those with lower-than-average incomes. Consider this: It was not until after the industrial revolution was in full-swing, specifically near the late 1800s, that the world began to see the rise of the service industry on a large scale, particularly in the sense of “luxury” services. It was only after the large-scale introduction of machines that human capital was freed up from mundane manual labor.

The interesting thing is that many anti-automation enthusiasts also staunchly support the Minimum Wage. However, as in this case, the Minimum Wage is one of the very things driving employers to consider replacing workers with machines. Recall how the press release referred to “labor savings”; why will such a machine produce large savings for a restauranteur? Obviously, because the machine will not require a wage (beyond normal maintenance costs, which will probably be much lower), a machine doesn’t require a 401(k), or a health plan, or paid vacation days. It seems like it’s probably much cheaper to use the machine. In the long run, I have no doubt that a machine like this would probably replace the fast food worker regardless of regulatory atmosphere; however, to make a transition like this is expensive. Any established restaurant chain would probably have to do a great deal of renovating to install the machine, would probably need to close the restaurant for a few days, would probably be plagued with small bugs and production hiccups until they became fully comfortable with the production process. The transition would likely be very expensive. This means that not every employer is chomping at the bit to make the transition right away. For many restaurant owners, it would still be more cost-effective to wait a number of years and retain their human workforce until the machines become widespread and eventually make competition in the field so intense that most humans would rather no longer work in the field, at which time that part of the labor market will become nearly dominated by machines.

This is an organic process that naturally occurs with the introduction of technology; but through the application of Minimum wage and other labor laws, these things agitate and speed the process. If Minimum Wage advocates push for McDonald’s to provide a “living wage” (which is stupid, because grunt jobs at McDonald’s were never meant for living on in the first place), they cause labor costs to increase. As the cost of the machine comes down, expensive labor regulations provide sort of an upward push that meets the cost halfway; whereas use of the machine may not have reached a price-level parity with human labor until 30 years from now, expensive labor regulation speeds this process and makes the automated option more attractive in, say, 20 years instead of 30. This is more detrimental to workers. In the organic process, the coming developments in the labor market typically move much more slowly and obviously. The writing becomes apparent on the wall, and laborers have time to begin filtering out of that particular market and into different markets which will provide a wage they are satisfied with. When Minimum Wage advocates shove an increase in the wage through, it can cause this process of encroaching automation to sharply lurch forward (in a manner of speaking), which catches entire strata of workers off-guard and causes them to scramble for other employment. In many cases, they did not have the warning on coming developments in the labor market that they might have within the organic process. It makes the transition much more painful. In this way, anti-automation enthusiasts who also agitate for an ever-higher Minimum Wage tie their own ideological nooses. They may have meant well by agitating for an increase in the Minimum Wage, but the action has unintended consequences.

Automation is a good thing. There should not be laws against introducing automation and replacing human workers. Someone who is genuinely compassionate towards workers facing replacement by machines should then oppose expensive labor regulation, and allow workers to compete freely against machines for cost-efficiency. Whenever thinking of the Minimum Wage, always remember: it is not a restriction on employers so much as it is a restriction on workers. The laws may say “An employer may not pay anyone less than $15 per hour”, but what the law really means is “No employee may work for less than $15 per hour.”

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