Cyndi's Two Cents

Lessons from fast-food restaurants


AI is all the buzz these days. The first time I overheard someone mention AI, my thoughts went straight to our tank filled with liquid nitrogen, keeping bovine semen and embryos in a super-cooled state until we are ready to use them to impregnate cows. But artificial insemination is not the AI getting all the attention these days. The AI most are talking about and experimenting with is artificial intelligence.

We watched a CBS news program a few weeks ago about a new fast-food restaurant in Pasadena, California that is “full autonomous.” I did a little digging online to learn more about CaliExpress by Flippy. Turns out, CaliExpress is the restaurant and Flippy is an AI-powered robotic fry station.

This is no typical fast-food joint. A grill robot grinds wagyu- blend burgers after the customer places his/her order. The burger patty is then AI-formed to a specific size and cooked to a precise internal temperature.

Flippy features a huge sleeved arm that places the carefully measured fries into a basket, gives it a shake, and immerses it in the hot oil. It lifts the fries out at the exact, pre-determined and programmed time, and drops them into a container for serving.

AI is also used for order placement and pay. Using AI, a customer can create a profile so facial recognition can be used to place orders and pay without a credit card or smartphone.

The restaurant does employ two human workers on staff to assemble and package the burgers, thus fulfilling the customer order. Humans are also there to assist customers with ordering and of course, to keep an eye on the automation in case something goes awry.

Although amazed by the technology that can and probably will replace thousands of fast-food restaurant workers, I am a little sad to think that this country is losing all those jobs to technology. Although working at McDonald’s or Hardees or another of those restaurants was for some, steady employment for many years.

But it was a “first job” for many.

It was an introduction to so much more than the actual labor involved. It was the first exposure to a paycheck, paying taxes, and being responsible to someone – something – outside of home or school. For some it was freedom: fuel in the tank of a car with enough left over to go to the movies with friends or on a date. For others, it helped cover the costs of those things a teenager wants and needs that parents cannot always afford when times are tough. Maybe it was a new pair of shoes or a dress for a special dance, or maybe it helped cover some bills that needed paid when Dad was laid off.

The food service industry is not the only one that has lost “first jobs” to technology. How many in rural America spent the summer cutting weeds out of beans, rogueing and detasseling corn, and putting up square bales of hay and straw?

I am all for artificial intelligence, automation, technology. Every generation has its firsts. I hope they are left with good memories and lessons from those first jobs, as I am. I did not work at a fast-food restaurant, but I was pretty handy with a corn knife and weed hook.

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