Automating Humanity

Credit: Business Insider

This is a nice little video from 11/30/2016 about those McDonald’s kiosks everyone likes to talk about so much.

The kiosks are coming the kiosks are coming! They’ve been coming for 20 years but somehow no one seems to remember this. People also seem to think that minimum wage has somehow magically created automation. It is actually more factual that these kiosks have been coming for a long time and have nothing to do with the workers. I alluded to this in my first article on automation and now I have more evidence from a variety of sources. I had said that the minimum wage protests were not the cause of increasing automation but rather a push against corporations which would advance their agenda, which is already in place. Automation is a natural consequence of the relentless innovation underway in technology and is inevitable. All you need to do is ask an old factory worker what happened to their job and you’ll either get “a machine took my job” or “shipped overseas”. The fact is automation has been coming for a long time and was being planned before any of the current minimum wage arguments were being made.

The focus for this series is kiosks which you’ve probably see everywhere. Most are touchscreens which let you order food by presenting multiple options from their selection of food. They are becoming more common across the United States but did you know that this was being planned for a long time? I’ll be going through every year of kiosk development since 1999 (which was the oldest date I could find articles) up until the modern day. I’ve dated all of the articles so that you can see the progression over time and when each place made the jump to automation. Just remember, kiosks have been around for a while now and have only been growing. The main examples are:

  • Grocery stores
  • Airports
  • Post offices
  • Hotels
  • Redbox (in a different way)
  • Fast food restaurants

This is an evolving project and will change over time as I incorporate more articles and points into the articles. Expect more to be added at a later date when I find more information. If there is anything that I missed that you want to see let me know. It is important to start the explanation by recognizing that automation slowly became a part of our culture but did so over a long period of time. This is just a small list of major innovations which have slowly traded human labor for convenience.

Innovation in Automation

  • Vending machines: they have been around for centuries and even existed in Roman Egypt but mainly began emerging in the 1880’s. Not a form of automation which would really replace someone but a method for companies to extend their merchandise in lieu of a store.
  • ATMs: the first patents for ATMs rolled out in the early 1960’s and are a way to allow people access to their money without the extra step of human interaction. This eliminates the need for bank tellers, however, their duties are numerous so it didn’t really affect them in any large way.
  • Ticker tape: since interest and investment in the stock market necessitated up to the minute details, automation in this sector was inevitable. This created a machine to display every company along with its stock information and cut out the middle man.
  • Stock data: After TV stations became popular and began showing stock information the ticker died out but computers soon outpaced a news presenter. This lead directly to the displays you see on Wall Street where people keep their eyes glued to the LED numbers which determine their profit or loss.
  • Industrial robots: the Industrial Revolution created a massive change in society since it allowed goods to be produced in record numbers. Unfortunately for the workers this boost to the job market wasn’t permanent. Factories began to employ more sophisticated industrial robots and gradually reduced the number of human workers. This created the fear that factories would essentially figure out how to automate the process completely, getting rid of paid workers. This hasn’t happened though and perhaps it could be a model to show how some human workers can remain.
  • Online News: the transition of newspapers to online websites has certainly burned away considerable numbers of employees in the reduction of effort it takes to print newspapers as well as a re-focus of what is newsworthy and what will get views.
  • Digital sales: ever since music, video games, TV programs and movies moved from DVDs and CD’s to an easily exchangeable platform, the need for real world stores died off. This lead to major websites to sell them and a gap where these people used to be.
  • The Internet: this one needs little introduction. The ability to trade money electronically through a website to receive services and goods has created a wireless globe, connecting all of us in a great marketplace of the world. The prospect of online shopping has been busy annihilating the old standard of selling from a store and radically changing the dynamic of sales in the future.
  • Amazon: The juggernaut of online shopping, if you need it, Amazon has it. Boasting millions of items for sale Amazon conquered the online marketplace and became THE site to buy anything you want all from the convenience of your sofa.
  • Netflix: Netflix did to DVDs what the MP4 player did to music. There used to be a store called Blockbuster, for the young people who don’t know, that sold video tapes as well as rental, snacks and a variety of miscellaneous paraphernalia. This store had been a staple for years as well as plenty of other places until a new model for video distribution came along. The infamous Redbox and Netflix provided alternative outlets and catered to people’s laziness which allowed them to buy movies in a far more relaxing way. Redbox offered sales on the go at convenient places such as Wal-Mart while Netflix focused on mailing DVDs and then later moved to mainly digital services which are proving to undermine Redbox due to the preference of digital over physical.

Now that you have seen the ways in which kiosks and automation has been creeping into our society I’ll outline several reasons for why I believe the kiosks have been stalled in their mass roll out to every fast food restaurant.

Arguments Against the Kiosk

  • The Economic Argument: costs for kiosks haven’t met the current costs of having employees. In the past they would take around 5 years or more just to see a turnaround on the expense trade off whereas now they’re getting far cheaper. Then are the additional costs to factor in such as electricity, installation, maintenance, programming, updates, security, repairing and the eventual replacement for a future model. It remains the main limit that has to be crossed before they replace cashiers.
  • Unfamiliarity: the younger generation will likely be familiar with the devices but older customers may still prefer to talk to a person, especially if they have any disabilities and would like to talk to a person. The difference is that the companies have thought one step ahead and planned to have employees ready to explain the kiosks as well as be available for assistance. Therefore this issue may have already been solved.
  • Replacement of Human Laborers: The idea of human beings being replaced by robots is never a good one but hasn’t stopped it in the past. The difference is that this would displace enormous amounts of human labor, to the point where it’s creating a societal problem if too many people are laid off too fast. I doubt it would happen so quickly but it will become noticeable even at 10-20 % replacement.


The ideas presented here are conjecture on the industry based on what I’ve seen. 

Airports: Progenitors of Kiosks

The reason that airports were one of the first places to use kiosks was that the difference in cost is a bit different than restaurants. The people who perform the job of printing your ticket, checking your passport and weighing your luggage is a bit more specialized than taking orders but isn’t impossible to replace. Airports are also very expensive, even for coach. This allows them to afford these types of expensive upgrades as opposed to the smaller budgets for corporate food franchises which attempt to limit the salary they pay their workers as much as possible.

Employee Self-Service

Ever since the kiosks were first deployed the idea behind them was to delegate the operation of this step of the transaction to customers. Thus, you would think most companies would get the message. Unfortunately, this was not understood or re-examined at least. I can sum it up in a small piece of advice; if there is a kiosk at your business and I choose to use it, DO NOT USE IT FOR ME. I had gone to an airport and a woman was there to use it for me. At that point, I don’t understand the point of installing them. Are you changing your reception? If I want to use them, leave me alone.

The Disappearing Clerk

This is more of my opinion but do you notice in grocery stores how there are often 10 or more cash registers yet only 3 people at the registers? This is especially true for places like Wal-Mart which can have up to 30 registers with 5 clerks available. This led me to consider that perhaps if they reduce the clerks the lines will get longer and motivate you to do it yourself. In this way the public will become used to using kiosks and ignore how the clerks are disappearing; which is convenient for us so that we can fulfill our lifelong dreams of becoming sales clerks.

Self-Driving Cars

This step is a bit far off in the future but I want you to be prepared for it if you drive for a living. You are being targeted for replacement. You’ve probably already heard of smart cars and how through programming a car or really any vehicle can drive by itself. The problem with it is that it’s already undergoing trial testing which includes Domino’s, an article I covered already. This leads to a direct threat against any drivers who currently think that their jobs are safe. From delivery food to packages (which drones are going after) and cargo, shipping represents a massive industry and would be another societal shift in employment if it were to be interfered with. Smart cars are slowly being tested and are safer than humans and automated trucks are coming very quickly with Tesla and Google leading the charge. Your pizza delivery driver could very well be a robot within 10 years and if you work there, be prepared.

Restaurant Security

I’d like to point out that even if kiosks somehow replace all human workers in the front there will still be someone there. No factory in the world only has robots. You need humans to perform other tasks and in a restaurant you would still need security. The staff fulfills this quasi role as of now but eventually you’ll need a guard to make sure people are behaving and not attempting to steal or damage any of the property. If there does come a time when no person works at the restaurant it would be unrecognizable to us.

Minimum Wage: Is it causing automation? (This is from Automated Food #1: Automation Runs Wild!Automated Food #1: Automation Runs Wild!)

To wrap up the subject I’ll bring up a social issue. There is a current wave of protests and demonstrations in the world aimed at increasing the minimum wage, $7.25. The one centered in the United States aims to increase the amount from $7.25 to $15. If you are not from the U.S. just know that this amount is only the federal wage. States have a degree of autonomy in the country and local minimums range from 9 to 10, 12 or 15 as has happened in Los Angeles, Seattle and San Francisco. While this differs in when it is employed, who it applies to and what level qualifies (city, township or state level) it has become a trend throughout parts of the country to increase it. It is also worth mentioning that while some Democratic leaders prefer it the Republicans decidedly do not. This is where the crux of the problem unfolds. Business owners are concerned that if the wages are raised they will lose profits and be forced to close. Republicans, usually on the side of larger businesses, have a policy of lowering taxes (which doesn’t always happen and occasionally goes the other way) especially for businesses and reducing government intrusion into the business world. Their argument is that by reducing these restrictions on businesses that the free market will prosper and grow which is why they don’t want the minimum wage to increase. They’d prefer the businesses take care of it and decide wages.

While there is still a debate and neither side has been proven to be vindicated in their positions entirely, another argument has been bubbling to the surface for a reason I find laughable. One argument has been that, if the government raises wages, restaurants will have to consider replacing their workers with robots. This stems from the fact that fast food employees are usually paid as little as possible since they don’t have marketable skills. Now that you know all this I’ll move to the robots. I’m not going to take a position on the minimum wage here because my site is to present these new ideas and not comment on socio-political issues. The idea that robots are replacing humans now due to the minimum wage increase is absurd. It may increase the probability of choosing robots as workers but robots have been replacing us before $10/hour was argued for.

Before the minimum wage, factory workers across the entire country were replaced for cheaper labor with China being the main example. The other option was to phase out workers performing routine tasks with robot that could do it cheaper. But if this was the case wouldn’t restaurants be the next ideal location? Sheetz, Wawa and Rutter’s, popular gas stations in Pennsylvania and along the eastern seaboard are excellent examples of this. Increasingly, they have begun to act in their capacity as small restaurants similar to fast food venues. The way they do this is using a small kitchen with a similar staff of any Burger King or Wendy’s. The difference is in ordering. There are no people. You select orders from a touchscreen which displays a variety of options and then prints out a receipt that you’ll take to a clerk to pay for. This step has been automated for years now and a logical next step would be the kitchen. The above examples I have shown you are also related in no way to the minimum wage argument. Jobs with limited to no specialized experience will always eventually be phased out in some way to cut down on costs. It’s just logical to squeeze more money out of a company.

This brings me to the finale. If you read all that gibberish up there, go take a break for an hour. What you need to understand is that increased wages won’t cause automation. McDonald’s is replacing their workers, $15/hour or $1/hour. You are replaceable because you cost more than the machines. Higher wages will only influence automation. But it doesn’t have to be a bad thing. It only results in problems because these larger companies do not see people. They see numbers. If that’s not the happiest way to end an article I don’t know what is! I guess the takeaway is…………become a mechanic? The future is marching towards the present everyday people, be prepared.

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