In our Tuesday night show Phil and I talked about losing jobs to automation - a continuation of the conversation started by Phil's post, "What if the Jobs Are Never Coming Back?" We mentioned the new automated ordering systems that McDonalds is testing shown below (I suggest starting the video at 2:00).
If implemented I could imagine the need for cashiers at McDonalds to be cut in half. Why? A machine may be expensive initially, but it works all shifts for years without a paycheck. The purchase price plus maintenance on those machines will be much cheaper for the business than paying cashiers to take the number of orders the machine could take during its lifetime.
Customers will like these things too. How better to insure that your order gets taken correctly? You put in the order yourself - including the number of ketchup packets you want - review the order, and place it.
And "there's an app for that!" There will be soon. You'll order by smart phone, walk past the order lines (both at the counter and at the automated kiosk) and grab your completed order. Many of us already do this for movie tickets. Restaurants will see these smart phone apps as a way to integrate themselves further into their customers lives. The nearest McDonalds will be right on your cell phone.
And if we automate the cashier, why not the cooks? The guy taking orders for the drive-thru window could be in India... until he's replaced by an AI. The whole kitchen could be empty except for one lonely manager checking up on the machines from time-to-time.
Everyone will like it... what's not to like? The restaurant will be more profitable, the food will be cheaper, more convenient, and probably more sanitary. Its better for everyone except the kids who find it just a little harder to get jobs as time goes by. And, largely, those kids won't know they're being automated out of the workforce. At least the won't be able to point to a particular machine as the culprit. They'll just be staying in their parent's basement a little longer.
There is no natural stopping point that I can identify - that point where the customer shouts - "I don't need further price reductions or greater convenience - I'm good!" Or the restaurant owner decides, "That's sufficient profitability. No more money needed here."
Obviously we'll all want to educate ourselves so that we can have higher-level jobs. The kid that would have been a cashier needs to learn how to repair Kiosks. But there won't be as many of those jobs, and not everyone who could have been a cashier will be capable of becoming a Kiosk repairman. Its a problem.
Solutions are not going to be easy. The government will naturally want to jump in with welfare and Luddite laws, but I don't think that's the right way to go. Welfare is corrosive to society and legislated Luddism will put our country at a competitive disadvantage. I think better solutions - at least in part - are internship programs and loyalty cards.
The internship program will have the lonely manager joined by others who are not necessarily all that productive, but who are learning the business. Loyalty cards would actually give customers a stake in the business. You could literally be earning McDonald's stock by buying cheeseburgers. Both paid internship programs and loyalty card systems would allow the wealth created by this automation to be distributed throughout the economy. And that's important to the business. People need money to buy fries.