Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better. – Maya Angelou

Mr. Walker's Classroom Blog

Robots Replace Servers! Are Chefs Next?

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There’s a new quinoa restaurant in San Francisco — yes, quinoa restaurants are a thing in San Francisco, so that’s not what’s noteworthy. At this restaurant, customers order, pay and receive their food and never interact with a person.

The restaurant, Eatsa, the first outlet in a company with national ambitions, is almost fully automated. There are no waiters or even an order taker behind a counter. There is no counter. There are unseen people helping to prepare the food, but there are plans to fully automate that process, too, if it can be done less expensively than employing people.

Last week, I was in a fast-moving line and browsed on a flat-screen monitor the menu of eight quinoa bowls, each costing $6.95 (burrito bowl, bento bowl, balsamic beet). Then I approached an iPad, where I tapped in my order, customized it and paid. My name, taken from my credit card, appeared on another screen, and when my food was ready, a number showed up next to it.

It corresponded to a cubby where my food would soon appear. The cubbies are behind transparent LCD screens that go black when the food is deposited, so no signs of human involvement are visible. With two taps of my finger, my cubby opened and my food was waiting.

The quinoa — stir-fried, with arugula, parsnips and red curry — tasted quite good.

Whether a restaurant that employs few people is good for the economy is another question. Restaurants, especially fast-food restaurants, have traditionally been a place where low-skilled workers can find employment. Most of the workers are not paid much, though in San Francisco employers of a certain size must pay health benefits and in 2018 a minimum wage of $15.

“What percent of our currently human interactions are going to remain human as technology really advances?” said Andrew McAfee, co-founder of the M.I.T. Initiative on the Digital Economy and co-author of “The Second Machine Age.” “I think for a lot of the meals I’m going to want to eat out in five years, if I don’t deal with a person, that’s not going to be a net negative for me at all.”

Eatsa is one more example of how rapidly machines have moved beyond routine jobs like clerical and manufacturing work to knowledge jobs and service jobs — like waiting tables. Economists disagree on whether technology will create more jobs than the ones it destroys, as has happened historically.

Mr. Friedberg, a lifelong vegetarian and passionate apostle of quinoa, said opening a restaurant without people was not the point. Rather, it was to open a fast-food restaurant that aimed to be faster, tastier and less expensive. He and his team determined that automation would achieve that.

Quinoa “is a much more efficient way to deliver protein to people than animal protein,” he said. He believes that changing consumers’ tastes is a way to change modern corporate agriculture, much of which is focused on feeding animals.

“The objective is over time we want to automate more and more to increase speed and reduce cost, so we create a food product that’s much cheaper and also happens to be healthy,” he said.

By not hiring people to work in the front of the restaurant, he said, they save money on payroll and real estate. (There will always be at least one person available to help people navigate the iPads and to clean up.) The kitchen is also automated, though he declined to reveal how, and the company is experimenting with how to further automate food preparation and delivery.

Cutting costs in restaurants is nothing new, of course. Eatsa brings to mindautomats, the waiter-less restaurants that are a cross between a cafeteria and a vending machine. They are still found in Japan and some parts of Europe. (The last Horn & Hardart automat, in New York, closed in 1991.) Mr. Friedberg says Eatsa goes well beyond that, by using software and supply chain innovation to fundamentally change how a restaurant runs.

He is firmly on the side of the optimists who think automation benefits the whole of society even if it hurts a few. “There’s rarely been a technology shift where people didn’t complain about technology replacing people’s jobs,” he said. “The reality is the economic growth from new technology has always resulted in new economic activity and job descriptions.

“We can sit and debate all day what the implications are for low-wage workers at restaurants, but I don’t think that’s fair. If increased productivity means cost savings get passed to consumers, consumers are going to have a lot more to spend on lots of things.”

Eatsa could also create new jobs, he said, like building automated machines and software systems ….