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The Matthew White column

Hollowing Out of Low-Skilled Staff by Robots

I’ve seen two very different articles today about futuristic food preparation; where “future” means available now and soon to be mass rolled out.

Both of them are amazing technology to improve the business of commercial food preparation, but together they remind us of the very real narrative of workers displaced by technology that’s been going on since Ned Ludd smashed knitting machines back in 1779.

My personal view is that the tech is very good for some people, including business owners and the staff who can upskill around it, but devastating for the hundreds of millions of food service workers that it will replace globally… all dependant on one thing – speed of disbursement of this tech.

Firstly, here are the two items:

  • an all-in-one 3D printer and laser cooker prototype. It can shape and cook food that it prints, meaning the full range of 3D printed additive manufacturing can be turned to making food any shape.
  • a robot that can “do the work of an entire fry station without any human assistance, and can do more than double the number of food preparation tasks its older sibling could do, including filling, emptying, and returning fry baskets

Tangenting for a second to a different future tech that’s here and now – self driving cars. They work already, in either limited locations or with limited functions. From what I’ve read though, the biggest uptake of driverless tech is not cars or robo-taxis but trucks. Cars for consumers are driven by buying and legislative choices around consumers. Trucks for logistics are around business decisions of cost, insurance and labour availability. Meaning that as soon as driverless trucks can crash on average less than a human, the insurance will go down and the business case is proved, meaning immediate roll-out of huge fleets. There are 3.5m truck drivers in the USA (can’t tell how many there are in the UK atm because of the lorry driver shortage amped up by Brexit). So that’s half the population of London out of work within a 5-10 year window. 5-10 is within the career span of most humans. That’s social dislocation.

So if by some magic, food machines like these two above could be rolled out quickly and cheaply, similar economics could apply. Similar but different enough to matter as food prep usually isn’t known for large capital expenditures vs hiring cheap labour per hour, so that’s a factor. Also there are far fewer haulage companies to make central decisions than there are independent food vendors so even if tech was available, it wouldn’t be adopted as fast.

That said, I don’t see food service being obliterated any time soon because there is no magic rollout machine for new machines.

So before we go back to sleep on this however, let’s add two more technical tangent:

Cheap, low skilled jobs are going. That is abundantly clear.

But that’s not news – it’s been happening since the industrial revolution.

What is news, and what I am writing this article to make the point about, is the speed of change is the factor of social turmoil.

When negative change happens quickly, and happens in many areas, that’s when social unrest occurs. Here, I say “quickly” means “within an adult’s working career”.

When someone has based their livelihood, career, family plans, on a particular income source that changes – they are faced with retraining or dying… or forcing political clampdowns (import tariffs and market protectionism and anti-outsourcing laws come to mind. When life expectations of social mobility are crushed without being replaced by a better or at least alternative vision of social mobility, social unrest (ie revolutions) occur. Look back on all revolutions and you’ll see a clear thread or two.


So, what does this mean? What action do we take?

Business owners: start training programs. Have an attitude and expectation of growth for your business and be on the look out for passionate staff. Give them extra responsibility and grow them. We can’t save everyone but we can save the ones who are in arm’s reach.

People working in jobs: invest in your own life-long training as well. I started in IT in the 1990s. My skillset for employment was DOS and Windows 3.11 and NT4. Through the last 20 years before starting Flywheel, I had 7 major technologies that were the core of my income become obsolete. Without a constant personal investment in my skills, I’d have no income. (Only once did an employer fund my MS exam, the rest was self-funded from a portion of my income I put away for this purpose).