Enough Already with the Culinary Robots!

Let’s sort out a basic income first

Image from Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

If you aren’t familiar with Douglas Adams’ “Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy” then let me introduce you to Marvin the Paranoid Android. Marvin is a robot with a “brain the size of a planet,” and is programmed with the ability to experience emotions. This is a problem for him because he is frustrated with the menial tasks he is assigned, and because he is so smart, they are all menial tasks, even the computationally difficult ones. As Wikipedia puts it so well, the “true horror of Marvin’s existence is that no task he could be given would occupy even the tiniest fraction of his vast intellect.”

Marvin is bored, depressed, and sulky.

So, why am I bringing up Marvin, apart from the fact that he is a fantastic character and that video made me laugh more than it should have done today? Well, I have a question, that maybe the brightest and the best readers can help me with. It is this:

“As we take great steps forward in AI and in quantum computing, when our capacity for improving the human condition is advancing daily…why are we obsessed with stories about robots doing menial jobs?”

What do I mean? Well, in just the last few weeks, I have seen articles about robots making burgers, robots making pizza, robots making cocktails, robots making coffee, and a robotic kitchen. I’m sorry for all the links, and I apologise for all the boring tasks inflicted upon the robots. Sorry guys. When you have a brain the size of the planet and the potential to deliver so much to humanity, why are we asking you to do the jobs that we can manage safely for ourselves?

Let’s look deeper at the food service robots. The argument goes something along these lines. Labor costs in the West are rising because there’s the minimum wage to consider. Your staff has to live somewhere in the same city in which they work, and even if it is the cheap side of town, that can be comparatively expensive. To cope with rising costs, restaurants have to compromise somewhere. They don’t want to have to raise their prices beyond the competition, yet if they don’t, how can they deliver both high-quality food and good customer service? Automation is a solution to provide consistent product and service while lowering costs. And there’s an additional attraction at present: it’s a neat gimmick to draw the crowds.

What is there to counter our fears of a dystopian future where robots take all our jobs, fatten us up on burgers, and infantilize us? (Yes, I have seen WALL-E). There is reassurance that we will not be made entirely redundant and will instead move into roles that maintain and extend the robot’s capabilities, leaving them to do the trivial jobs that automation makes more cost-effective, speedy, and reliable. But the OECD (a leading European thinktank) warns that, globally, up to 66 million people are at risk of losing their jobs to automation, and that the jobs will be lost in regions where education provision is not necessarily available to learn new skills. So the reassurance isn’t very, well, reassuring. Experiments with basic income to provide a living wage as an alternative to a salary — the darling project in Silicon valley — have recently stalled, although they are planned to restart in 2019.

In days gone by, a large percentage of the workforce was employed in farming; tending crops and livestock. I don’t have the exact figures, but roughly 90% of the US population lived on farms in the 1800, whereas the agricultural population is approximately 2% today. The industrial revolution saw people leave the fields for the factories. If we see a similar revolution in the service industry, where are the workers to go?

I know there are nuanced arguments for automation (this article in the Verge makes a good point for delivering higher food quality for less by cutting service costs), but there are also scientific advances in the works to deliver high-quality food for less. Ensuring our food security by means of developing synthetic meat or efficient means to produce hydroponic vegetables seems to me like a more advanced way to proceed than developing robots that take jobs from people in the name of cost-cutting.

There are arguments that the advances in robot technology for food preparation will help propel automation in other areas, such as assistance for the disabled. This is true, and all research is important regardless of how trivial the task. It is a given that having a robot learn to chop a tomato is advancing our knowledge. Likewise, I know there are plenty of teams working on robots that perform sophisticated tasks that will provide safer, more intellectually stimulating workplaces for their accompanying human workforce.

And, just maybe, our puny human minds struggle to grasp the complex tasks that research is directing the robots to learn. We need simple stories that we understand, so food service robots get pushed to the forefront of the news cycle. However, it seems to me that the slew of attention on food and beverage service robotics has distracted us. If nothing else than from the delights of robots that can load dishwashers and toss things in the garbage. And banana-skin slapstick.

Sorry, Marvin.

If you have any thoughts or ideas to help me out of my confusion (particularly if you have a brain the size of a planet) please do leave them in the comments below!

This article first appeared on DZone in July 2018, and is reproduced here by kind permission, with some minor edits to add a comment about YCombinator’s basic income experiment.

Rōnin technology writer and podcast host. Cat herder. Dereferences NULL.