Some years ago, I stepped into a McDonalds somewhere in the center of Madrid, craving a double cheeseburger and a Coke Zero. Let’s call it 2013 or thereabouts. I was not expecting what I found.
No cashier/order-taker was waiting behind a counter. Throughout the entry area, there was a bank of self-service video screens—Spanish and English—on which to build your order. (They’re now ubiquitous across Europe; I assume the U.S., too.)
Payment was simple—insert credit or debit card into the reader.
The pick-up area was a little counter connected to a slot in the wall. There, I found the only employee I saw—a young woman making sure my receipt matched my order.
A few years later, I was on the U.S. West Coast meeting with a company that makes machines that produce fresh hamburgers—no humans involved. I wrote a story about the future of fast food and that one day, soon enough, a 20-something sipping a mocha chai latte in a Starbucks while streaming Netflix will run an entire region of Mickey D’s from a tablet computer.
People laughed when I mentioned that at a conference I spoke at several years ago. A speaker on stage with me, and way older than me, said I clearly don’t understand business and how all of this works, and that technology would never replace the fast-food worker.
And now I give you this:
McDonald’s techie-future arm, McD Tech Labs, just recently announced it has partnered with IBM to perfect and roll out a robotic drive-thru. No more garbled greetings. No more ordering a kid-sized Diet Dr. Pepper, only to have the order-taker ring you up for a super-sized orange soda.
But, as you probably suspect, this isn’t really a story about McDonald’s or old conference speakers who think they know more about tech than they really do.
It’s about the challenging future this announcement brings forth.
See, that story I wrote after my Madrid McDonald’s experience wasn’t really an upbeat story (yes, there was an investment angle, a Japanese tech firm up more than 3x so far). My take was more somber.
The rise of machines among the lowest ranks of the American workforce has a dark undercurrent.
Used to be that burger-flipping and cashiering was a stepping stone, maybe a bit of summertime pocket money, for America’s high-schoolers and college kids. That’s what it was when I flipped burgers at a Mickey D’s near Houston, Texas, in 10th grade. (Circa 1982. Worst. Job. Ever. McDonald’s still owes me my last paycheck!)
Today, low-wage fast-food work is a career choice, for a lack of a better term, for upwards of 5 million Americans who either have low skills, low education, or no other income options despite their skills and education.
And that brings to the surface a significant hurdle we will slam into in the foreseeable offing: Where do these workers turn when the spawn of Siri and HAL 9000 take over the lowest-paying jobs in the country?
America, morally speaking, has never been terribly keen on social safety nets.
Yet this is going to be a canyon-sized chasm of a crack that millions of people with slip through, with nary a lifesaver in sight.
That’s a revolution waiting on a cogent rallying cry.
This is one of the reasons I think the later quarter of this decade is going to be a problematic period for Western society (and great for gold, silver, Swiss francs, and crypto). The tech genie is not going back into her analog toothpaste tube—to purposefully mix metaphors.
Companies are clearly going to pursue profits over people. That’s just the ugly truth. Here’s Andy Puzder, CEO of CKE Restaurants, the parents of Carl’s Jr. and Hardees (this is from a few years ago, when I was writing my story):
If you’re making labor more expensive and automation less expensive—this is not rocket science. [Robotic technologies] are always polite, they always upsell, they never take a vacation, they never show up late, there’s never a slip-and-fall, or an age, sex, or race discrimination case.
Fast-food workers are walking the Green Mile (movie reference about that final walk to the execution chamber).
Here’s my prediction: Before the decade’s out, fast-food restaurants will employee, maybe, two or three workers at most. And they’ll be physically 60% smaller than they are today. No need for so much back-of-house kitchen space—and the associated real estate costs—when everything will be just a few machines and a cold-storage area.
Machines will make perfect burgers—every time—from fresh ingredients at a peak rate of 400 or so per hour. Other machines will replenish the burger-flipper continually, with those fresh ingredients held in cold storage.
That 20-something streaming Netflix at Starbucks will instantly know when something is amiss in any of the 200 stores she’s monitoring on her smartphone, and she’ll instantly know the repair-bot is already on the case.
All very Jetsons, for sure. But it’s the knowable/seeable future at this point.
Which means income sources will have to change, which is where we’ll pick up in a future dispatch…because the source of that future income is already taking shape in the cryptoconomy.