A fast-food restaurant seems like a fitting venue for the robot apocalypse.
I’m sitting in black leather chair at CaliBurger, a mostly unremarkable burger chain, eating a double cheeseburger prepared by a robot, and contemplating the fate of humankind.
Two months ago, CaliBurger announced to much fanfare that it was incorporating a burger-flipping robot named Flippy at its Pasadena location. Created by Miso Robotics, Flippy promises to prepare perfectly cooked burger patties with the crushing efficiency only a robot can provide: up to 300 hamburger patties per hour, according to Miso Robotics, and with full OSHA compliance.
It’s a marketing gimmick to be sure — and an effective one at that given the undue amount of press it generated. But Flippy also represents the worst fears of blue-collar America. For years, Democrats have advocated for raising the minimum wage to $15, and for years, working-class Americans have warned that such an increase will incentivize corporations to invest more in automation and ruin their chances of earning any wage at all. Nor does CaliBurger CEO John Miller hide the fact that he holds these jobs in low esteem. “[Flipping burgers] is not a fun job. It’s hot, it’s greasy, it’s dirty,” he says.
For me, though, the Flippy threat is greater than mere job security; it’s existential. I think about robots a lot — certainly more than would be considered healthy. And while I recognize that might seem paranoid, I can’t be blamed for holding robots in contempt. Nearly all the greatest works of science fiction — from Asimov to Ex Machina — center on the idea that artificial intelligence will one day surpass that of man, forcing humans to confront an enemy of his own creation.
We’ve been anticipating this showdown for the entirety of modern popular culture, and now we’re starting to see this robot dystopia take place. The Defense Department is experimenting with using AI in weapons systems, an idea scarily reminiscent of Skynet from the Terminator series, and robot security guards are creeping women out at LaGuardia airport and terrorizing homeless people in San Francisco. (They’re also dodging my colleague’s punches when he tries to fight back.) In other words: The robots are assuming all the positions they’ll need to stage their coup, and once it occurs, we might very well remember Flippy as the Fort Sumter in the Great Robot War.
Needless to say then, Flippy sparked in me a morbid curiosity the moment I heard of his introduction. But I had to wait two months for him to serve me a burger. The day after Flippy’s first shift, CaliBurger temporarily suspended him due to workflow issues. Apparently, Flippy wasn’t integrating well with his human co-workers, and needed to be re-programmed to better fit their feeble human needs.
I wasn’t, though, about to be denied the opportunity to confront my fast-food robot overlord. And so, over the last couple of months, I’ve called CaliBurger nearly every other day, inquiring when Flippy would be back behind the grill again. Strangely, the person on the other side of the line always talked about Flippy as though he were just another co-worker who had fallen ill and was unable to cover his shift. “Flippy’s not working today,” the person would say. “But he might be in tomorrow.”
Tomorrow finally came over the weekend when Flippy was brought back online.
No else one at CaliBurger, though, seems to share my morbid interest in Flippy. He works separate from the main kitchen so people can watch him operate, yet absolutely no customers are peering into Flippy’s Kitchen when I arrive. They’re too busy trying to maneuver the restaurant’s baffling ordering system, which involves a disorderly mob that eventually feeds into three ill-formed lines.
For all of my hand-wringing about automation replacing human labor, Flippy still needs a lot of human assistance. A human still needs to season the uncooked burger patties, place them on the griddle and add the cheese. All Flippy does is turn the patties over and take them off the grill when needed, at which point a human CaliBurger employee places them between a bun and adds all the necessary accoutrement.
A guy in a Miso Robotics T-shirt, though, assures me this is only the beginning to Flippy’s kitchen takeover. “He can only do one thing at a time right now,” he explains. “But we’ll really push the envelope over the next few years in terms of human-robot interactions.” Soon, he promises, Flippy will be able to place the meat on the griddle and add the cheese and spices himself. And those updates will be made remotely via the internet, much like a person would update an app on their iPhone.
I bite into the Cali Double Flippy has prepared for me, and it’s satisfying in the way all fast food is—instantly gratifying but ultimately regrettable. As I chew it over, I’m left to ponder Flippy’s and our futures together. Perhaps we can co-exist peaceably. After all, given Flippy’s reliance on other humans, it’s tempting to dismiss the labor concerns about this particular form of automation.
Then again, computing power increases exponentially, and it’s not hard to imagine a fully-automated fast-food workforce in my lifetime. For centuries, Luddites’ concerns about machines replacing labor have been proven wrong. The jobs created by new technologies were more than enough to make up for the jobs that were lost. But many economists feel this particular moment is different. Computer learning is becoming so advanced that it will eventually erase jobs from all corners of the economy, skilled and unskilled alike.
This would, of course, lead to my greatest fear: The subjugation of the human species by machines. The only silver lining — if CaliBurger is any indication at least — is that the future, no matter how bleak, will still be filled with delicious empty calories.