Why Fast Food Workers Won't Be Replaced With Robots Anytime Soon

Robot fast food burritoMike Nudelman/Business InsiderDon’t fear, you won’t be seeing this at your local burrito joint anytime soon.

Recent studies have claimed that fast food jobs are among the most at-risk for being replaced by robots.

But it’s unlikely that robots could replace fast food workers anytime soon, Frank Levy, an economist and Professor Emeritus at MIT who has studied robots extensively, told Business Insider.

“There is a clear difference in ordering a book on Amazon versus ordering a burrito,” Levy said. “We know how to do one, but the second is too complicated to do cheaply.”

While some fast food items could be prepared by machines, these customised options are simply too complicated right now.

A company called Solbern in Fairfield, New Jersey, hired three engineers to invent a machine that made burritos.

After three painstaking years, the engineers finally arrived at a solution, Jorge Espino, vice president of sales and marketing, told Business Insider. But the machine, which costs between $US120,000 and $US150,000, needs to follow specific size and weight rules in order to function.

“One of the most difficult things we faced was to duplicate the gestures of the motions that a human could perform with their fingers,” Espino told us. “We would study videos for hours of how to tuck and fold burritos, and humans would make all kinds of corrections that we couldn’t replicate in a machine.”

Solbern’s machine is ideal for making frozen supermarket burritos, but not custom items.

Burrito machine solbernSolbernSolbern’s burrito-folding machine.

“If you’re looking at Chipotle, where every burrito is different, it’s a totally different scenario,” Espino said. “The ability to adjust for different ingredients and preferences is outside the reach of current technology.”

Even if it were possible to replace workers with robots, Chipotle wouldn’t do it. “Simply because one can use robots to perform a function, doesn’t mean that one should,” Chipotle communications director Chris Arnold said.

“Making a restaurant great is about much more than food. It’s a whole experience,” Arnold told Business Insider. “People are huge part of that, from serving customers to bringing energy, building relationships, and helping to resolve issues that may arise.”

Levy, the MIT professor, also notes that human connection is important to customers.

“It’s very hard to imagine people will be happy shaking hands with a robot,” Levy said.

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