The CaliBurger hamburger chain in California has announced that they’ll be installing robots, dubbed “Flippy,” in about a fifth of its restaurants, to turn the hamburger patties while grilling and clean the hot, messy grill afterwards.  Sounds like tasks that “Flippy” will enjoy.  In the meantime, human employees will be freed to tidy the dining rooms, fill drinks and otherwise offer good hospitality.

The hospitality industry had about 850,000 unfilled jobs in April, or, one in every eight jobs in America.  For those who worry that businesses will use robots to replace workers, a labor economist at the University of Michigan, Donald Grimes, has this response:  “If businesses were hiring robots instead of humans, you’d see unemployment increase in the industry – but that’s not the case – quite the opposite.”  It also seems possible that the increase in the use of robots in the industry would lead restaurants to employ fewer people per establishment, but thus far, that’s not happening either (re. a recent article in the WSJ). It will be a while before robots can fully replace humans in the hospitality industry.  Scott Murphy, COO of Dunkin’ Donuts, however, lists a downside of having humans on staff: “We spend a lot time training people and a month later they walk out the door.”  That wouldn’t be the case with a Bot!  However, use of bots has added quality to the employee experience.  The morning shift leader at Dunkin’ Donuts in Corona, CA says that she’s likely to stick with the job longer now than she would have otherwise.  With robots working at the shops behind the scenes, she says that she doesn’t have to constantly worry about smaller, tedious tasks and can focus on things that actually need her attention in the restaurant.  Now that the labor pool is shrinking and wages are increasing, the restaurant and hospitality business will likely turn more to the use of robots.  In the past, with cheap, available labor, there was no need.  A labor economist at the University of Chicago, Magne Mogstad, explains that “Automation may very well create demand for service with a personal touch.  Automation improves consistency, shaves time off tasks and could ease turnover.”  At the same time that the hospitality industry is beginning to explore the use of Bots, the farm industry has experienced declining employment and rising output in the 20th Century through the use of technology and robots.  The manufacturing sector, another large part of the economy, is just beginning to see the possibilities and has recently realized that the industry will have to come to terms with the reality that more automation – including AI and robots – will be critical for meeting the huge prospective demands of the future.


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