We used to joke that when all else failed, you could always flip burgers. Then Momentum Machines arrived, promising a robot that makes gourmet burgers, even grinding the meat to order, at the rate of 400 per hour. Brian Merchant covered it for Motherboard in 2012, but not much was heard about it until 2014 when President Obama called for Congress to increase the federal minimum wage from $7.25 to $10.10. There was outrage from the fast-food industry, which threatened to replace employees with robots if the wages went up. Momentum Machines was suddenly everywhere in the news, the poster child for the future of fast food.
Andy Puzder, CEO of the company that owns Carl's Jr. and Hardee, wrote an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal in 2014:
Here’s what middle-class business owners, who live in the real world, will do when faced with a 40% increase in labor costs. They will cut jobs and rely more on technology. Such changes are already happening in banks, gas stations, grocery stores, airports and, more recently, restaurants.
Watch this news clip from a right wing Internet news site discussing the minimum wage in 2014 and laying it all out: It's unionized fast-food workers vs. the machines.
Of course Obama couldn’t convince Congress of anything, and the minimum wage increase went away. Interestingly so did Momentum Machines; they have not been heard from since. (I learned about them from Martin Ford’s book, "The Rise of the Robots." They still exist but are are in serious stealth mode.)
Now, fast-forward to 2016 and Puzder of Carl's Jr. is in the news again, talking about robots and automation in Business Insider. This time he's excited about a restaurant chain called Eatsa, which looks like an old Horn and Hardart Automat, where customers pick up their food from a window. Puzder waxes eloquent about the benefits of robots:
They're 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."
But what’s the real context of this discussion? Just like 2014, it’s election time again, and it’s the minimum wage.
With government driving up the cost of labor, it's driving down the number of jobs. You're going to see automation not just in airports and grocery stores, but in restaurants…This is the problem with Bernie Sanders, and Hillary Clinton, and progressives who push very hard to raise the minimum wage… If you're making labor more expensive, and automation less expensive — this is not rocket science.
There is a real lesson to be learned from all this: news about new job-killing robots and businesses like Eatsa tend to pop up when there's a discussion of raising the minimum wage. Pudzer will pop up and promise to fire everyone and hire robots. It’s political, not technological.
And for the rest of this election cycle we should be careful to look at discussions about the future of technology and jobs through this lens.