The Robots are Winning: A Friday Chat


NICOLE: Hi, Meghan! Happy Friday!

MEGHAN: Hello Nicole!

NICOLE: DID YOU SEE THE PIZZA ROBOT???? I am so excited about the pizza robot.

MEGHAN: OH DID I EVER. He’s adorable! (It’s a he, right?)

NICOLE: I need to go watch that video again to see if they gendered the robot. I can’t remember. Dru is a gender-neutral name, though.

MEGHAN: My robot gender prejudice is showing here, I guess. Although I was still basking in Dru’s cuteness when I saw that the Carl’s Jr. CEO wants to automate his “establishments,” which puts a darker spin on the “robots are stealing our jobs” story.

Fast-Food CEO Says He’d Rather Automate Restaurants Than Pay Workers Higher Wages

NICOLE: Yeah, I suspect that as these types of autonomous service robots become more prevalent, we’ll have to figure out what we’re going to do with all of the people who used to have those jobs. I mean, first they were employees, then they were freelance gigs (TaskRabbit, Postmate), and then they’ll become robot jobs.

MEGHAN: Right, as someone who has held minimum wage service jobs in the past — deli-counter server, barista — I’m not arguing that these are positions we need to protect on their own merits (low pay, middling benefits, no security), but it’s also terrifying to think what might happen to the countless people who do rely on those positions for income. Standing next to the robots to help them out when they can’t understand why anyone would order a “tall, two pump, extra hot, no water chai latte”?

NICOLE: I bet those kind of orders will become even easier with robots, though. Like those Coke machines where you can put one pump of every single kind of Coke into your cup.

MEGHAN: I was agog when I first saw those. Like, awestruck. The future is now. Can we agree that Andy Puzder (the CEO of Carl’s Jr. and Hardee’s) is a complete ass, though? His robot strategy just seems to be “people are horrible and I don’t like paying them, ergo robots.”

NICOLE: And then he throws shade at Millennials for not wanting to interact with people! “I’ve actually seen young people waiting in line to use the kiosk where there’s a person standing behind the counter, waiting on nobody.” There are so many reasons why someone might prefer to use the kiosk. I always prefer the self-checkout when I go grocery shopping, for example. I can pack my own reusable bags and get everything in there, instead of watching someone else start to fill the bags and then tell me that I’m going to need a third bag. I WILL NOT NEED A THIRD BAG.

MEGHAN: I NEVER NEED A THIRD BAG. That is so true. But see, I rarely use the self-checkout because I inevitably screw something up and have to wait for someone to come over to help, at which point I know they are thinking, “Oh ho ho, here’s another Millennial thinking they can do my job better than me.” Also, since now I work from home and so I’ll drink in any chance to interact with another human.

I don’t think this is about people preferring robots, though. I think it’s about jerks wanting to eliminate compassion as an element of doing business.

NICOLE: That lack of compassion is just going to travel uphill, though. Not for a CEO, maybe, but the people who supply delivery robots to restaurants will build in planned obsolescence, and so the people who run those restaurants will have to deal with robot breakage and software upgrades, and maybe that won’t be like an employee calling out at the last minute, but you’re also not going to be able to call another robot and get that robot to replace the robot that needs a software upgrade, because they’re all going to need the upgrade at the same time.

That probably won’t be exactly how it works, but you can extrapolate from this analogy. Basically I mean that if you aren’t compassionate to human employees, eventually you won’t have anyone to be compassionate to you, when all your robots stop working.

MEGHAN: We have zero trust in these robots. I’m sure that thought went into designing little Dru — how to make him as cute as robotly possible so that no one thinks to pitch him off a cliff when their pizza arrives without the extra cheese.

NICOLE: I kinda feel like we can’t trust the humans, either — I know you need a unique code to get your pizza out of Dru, but what if you just stole Dru off the street and used, like, a saw? That’s a lot of work to get a pizza but I feel like once these robots are on the sidewalks, people will be playing with them, trying to obstruct them, covering them with stickers that advertise their band, and so on.

MEGHAN: Yeah — if there’s nothing stopping us from berating a human barista for not making a cappuccino dry enough, I hate to think what could happen to the robots.

NICOLE: Someone will stuff a dirty diaper into Dru’s pizza hole. Or something. Something terrible.

MEGHAN: A dirty diaper. Nicole, you have a gentle heart.

NICOLE: That is a biohazard! And you know that those Drus aren’t going to be cleaned as often as they should. Because you’d have to hire people to do that, and people cost money and take sick days. Or you can start working on your robot-cleaning robot.

MEGHAN: It’s the robot infinite loop.

NICOLE: And as we know from Douglas Hofstadter, infinite loops are how you get consciousness. When they ask how the robots became sentient, they’ll start with Dru.

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