Robots

I caught a brief video on BBC about Flippy, a burger-flipping robot that has been introduced in a Pasadena, California burger restaurant. It uses image recognition and heat sensing technologies to know when to turn the burgers and when to take them off of the grill. The machine is capable of handling 12 burgers at once. The restaurant chain, CaliBurger, intends to install 50 of the units in its stores over the next few months. The robots aren’t cheap. They cost $60,000 to purchase and an additional $12,000 per year to run. Depending on the service life of the robots, which is not completely known, they probably are less expensive for the restaurant than human cooks. Burger line cooks are generally unskilled workers who are hired part time without benefits and are relatively low cost employees. The job, however, isn’t a very fun job. It is hot and greasy and can cause wrist injuries. At the end of the day, most people who do that job would prefer to be doing something else. It is a high turnover job. But it is a job that they can get and it does provide some income for their family. I’m pretty sure that there are some people who currently work in fast-food restaurants who will be displaced by the robots.

The manufacturers of the robots say that they are more consistent than human cooks. The burgers come out exactly the way the restaurant owners want them to be. The video did, however, show the robot making mistakes. It would occasionally flip a cheese burger after the cheese had been put on top, making a mess of the cheese and the burger. Probably that is a minor bit of software adjustment and the machine will soon be flipping burgers with a lower rate of mistakes than humans. It will also work longer hours without demanding overtime. It won’t quit the job as soon as something better is offered.

For now, the machine is just an additional level of automation in a fast food environment that already has quite a bit of automation. It won’t replace humans. It won’t be handing the food to the customer and replacing all of the employees. There will still be jobs for humans in fast food for the foreseeable future.

It does get one to thinking however. What level of automation is most desirable? Are there some jobs that we want to preserve simply because we have people who need those jobs? If machines are assigned all of the repetitive tasks, will there be more and more people who simply don’t have jobs? What do those with no jobs do with their time?

It isn’t just flipping burgers, of course. Perhaps the most notable of advances in robotics are self-driving vehicles. Driving truck is a job held by a lot of US workers. They earn their living and support their families with their skills behind the wheel. But deliveries have already been made by experimental driverless trucks. Laws are being adjusted in some states to allow for automated transport systems. There is talk of automated cars replacing cabs driven by human drivers in the not-too-distant future.

The questions isn’t substantially different than the questions that arose in the early years of the industrial revolution. When machines do the jobs that humans used to do, what do humans do? One of the things they do is to repair machines. I have a friend who repairs sophisticated medical imaging machines. He has some highly specialized skills and hospitals have become utterly dependent upon the machines. It doesn’t look like there will be any less need for his skills in his lifetime. New jobs arise in building and maintaining the machines that do the jobs that humans no longer want to do. And it is true that the applications of robots so far are for jobs that are repetitive and probably don’t bring out the highest and bess skills from the humans who do those jobs.

As we live into this new time of increased automation, one wonders where the limits of technology may be.

I know of a congregation that has multiple satellite churches. The satellite churches don’t have live worship leaders, but rather huge video and audio systems that show the main service being conducted at the home site. Through this application of technology one team of worship leaders can provide a kind of worship experience for thousands of people. The worship team is already smaller than the team in our church, which includes a vocal choir, a bell choir, lay readers as well as paid staff. Clearly their model is attractive to some worshipers - they draw a bigger crowd than our congregation. The one time I attended a service, however, it wasn’t very worshipful for me. It was more like going to a movie - focused on entertainment without engaging me in any significant engagement in n actual worship discipline.

It does, however, show that I can be replaced with technology. My congregation could opt for a big screen and streamed in services in place of what we do these days. It isn’t a choice I expect the congregation to make, but it is silly for me to think that I am somehow exempt from the changes that are occurring in technology. We are all affected.

Just yesterday, a friend proposed giving up computers for Lent. I suggested that it could be a problem in our church because that would mean giving up heat in the building and processing of donations and issuing of pay checks - all of which are done employing computer technology. While it is possible and even desirable for us to individually give up our over dependence on screens and keyboards, it is hard to imagine simply avoiding technology all together for six weeks.

But there is no escaping the simple fact that times are changing.

I keep wondering what they might call a robot preacher. Talky? Preachy? Know it all? So far I haven’t come up with anything that hasn’t already been said about a human preacher.

Copyright (c) 2018 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!