In late 2022, there was a major tech news story that made headlines for a hot minute, but was completely forgotten. In Fort Worth, Texas, the first ever automated McDonald’s restaurant opened.
From the outside, it looks like a typical McDonald’s. It has the same aesthetics and architecture that have become so iconic. But inside, there are none of the usual fast-food workers. There are just rows of kiosks and a conveyer belt. Once you place your order, it’s automatically prepared behind the scenes in the kitchen. Then, when it’s ready, it’s bagged and wheeled out to you.
When it’s working optimally, you never have to interact with another human being. Whether you consider that a good or bad thing is entirely up to you, but that’s the ideal. As for how it handles orders that aren’t properly bagged, food that isn’t properly cooked, or drinks that aren’t properly prepared, that’s not yet clear.
This isn’t intended to be the start of a massive effort to automate every McDonald’s restaurant. It’s largely a test to see just how much a standard fast food restaurant can be automated.
As someone who’s first paying job was in fast food, I have some mixed feelings about this.
On one hand, I welcome this kind of automation. I remember what it was like working at these restaurants. The pay was awful. The conditions sucked. And you had to regularly clean up messes that made you want to throw up.
On the other, this is an undeniable sign that automation is accelerating and the low-skilled jobs that many people rely on might become less and less available in the coming years. And for those who really need a job, even if it’s a lousy, low-paying job, that could be seriously detrimental to large swaths of people.
In terms of the bigger picture, I think this is a much larger story than people realize. Automation has been a popular talking point for years now. I’ve certainly touched on it. And I think the recent rise of artificial intelligent programs like ChatGPT have really raised the profile of automation, mostly because it revealed that it’s more than just factory jobs that are vulnerable to it.
It might even be because of ChatGPT that this story about McDonald’s flew under the radar. But I honestly think automation in the fast food and restaurant industry could be more disruptive in the short-term than products like ChatGPT.
In the coming years, we might look back at this automated McDonald’s as the first step towards a new trend in automation. People have talked about automating things like fast food for years. Then, the lingering effects of the COVID-19 pandemic and new trends in labor converged to create new incentives.
This is no longer just an idea that exists on paper or in the imaginations of CEO’s fantasizing about not having to pay minimum-wage workers anymore. This restaurant actually exists. People in the Fort Worth area can visit it right now.
Again, it’s not part of an ongoing effort to automate every McDonald’s. If you go to this restaurant, chances are you’ll deal with a system that’s still being refined. There’s probably still people there behind the scenes, monitoring and fixing whatever bugs emerge in the system. There’s a good chance those people are paid much more than minimum wage. There’s also a good chance that this particular McDonald’s isn’t going to be more profitable than those with human workers.
But those are just logistical issues that can be polished, refined, and streamlined. All it takes is time and experience. It’s not unlike the first assembly line or the first 3D-printer. It’s messy and clunky at first, but it steadily becomes more efficient with time and investment.
Eventually, it’ll get to a point where a functional McDonald’s won’t ever need a staff of low-skilled employees anymore. In principle, it would only need one person to be there to make sure the ingredients are re-stocked and the equipment doesn’t break. The company probably wouldn’t even need to pay the person that much. If they’re qualified to work as an unpaid intern in a standard IT department, they’re probably qualified to manage this system.
And if McDonald’s finds a way to make it work, you can expect the competition to catch up quickly. There would just be too much incentive to remove all the low-skilled wage labor as a means of increasing profits. It won’t happen overnight, but one company only needs to succeed once before others copy it.
Fittingly enough, that’s something McDonald’s did before. Their system of fast food was pioneered in the early 1950s and proved so successful that many other competitive, including Burger King and Taco Bell, embraced it. It’s very likely we’ll see something similar play out with automation.
But what does that mean for low-skilled labor, in general?
That’s a relevant question. There’s no way this kind of automation will stop at fast food restaurants. Add AI tools like ChatGPT into the mix and even mid-skill jobs could be at risk.
I don’t claim to know the answer, but I suspect we’re going to see some major upheavals in how we work in the coming years. That’s going to have consequences, good and bad. And I honestly worry that we’re not prepared for the bad consequences in the slightest.