Issue #5: Would you like a robot to prepare your dinner?
Machines could replace chefs, but will consumers trust them?
With a heatwave currently rolling over Berlin, I wondered if life wouldn’t be better with partial job automation and shorter work hours. After all, most humans lose their productivity if it’s too hot. However, there is one exception: pizza bakers. Those chefs juggle ingredients and create a pizza in front of a hot stone oven every day to satisfy hungry clients.
Technically, the job of the pizza baker could disappear. In this issue, I want to share a story about a new pizza baking/vending machine and Rome. Additionally, I included a story about a new kitchen robot that can prepare over 60 dishes.
Are chefs endangered? I doubt it. But workers in fast-food chains might be. What cooking robots do, is automate the routine tasks of a chain assembly line where ingredients and preparation steps are always the same. Chefs who prepare creative new dishes and cook with a passion won’t be bothered by any robots.
I prefer my local favorite pizza restaurant, but what about you? Do you like the idea of robots cooking your dinner? Leave a comment with your thoughts.
Headlines you shouldn’t miss
FINANCIAL TIMES Tech’s pandemic winners offer clues to the future of work: Companies like Zoom belonged to last year’s stock market winners. The company has started to establish physical ‘Zoom rooms’ at companies, indicating that remote work won’t be the primary working model.
BBC Is the great digital-nomad workforce actually coming? With technological advances allowing employees to work remotely, some people believe that the number of digital nomads will grow. Work scientists and sociologists agree that this will not be the case, as this option is only available to a small group of privileged people. The majority of workers prefer a normal life with a based home and familiar neighborhood.
DIGITAL TRENDS The future of automation: Robots are coming, but they won’t take your job Scientific evidence points towards the transformation of jobs: More and more jobs will become ‘hybrid’ with machines and digital technologies making up a large part of their tasks, but digital advancements are not likely to lead to mass unemployment. Rather, the entire job market transforms.
AXIOS How automation led to stagnant wages and inequality A research paper by MIT's Daron Acemoglu and Boston University's Pascual Restrepo analyzed which factors contributed to low working-class wages. Offshoring, the decline of unions, and corporate concentration all played a role, but automation was the leading contributor.
A pizza vending machine popped up in Rome - but chefs are not intimidated
Almost everybody loves pizza. Tangy cheese, subtle sweetness of ripe tomatoes, and an elegant dough create a perfect base for individual variations of this Italian classic. Pizza chefs pride themselves on creating the perfect pizza, but there is a new kid on the block in the epicenter of the popular dish. Mr. Go Pizza is a vending machine that appeared in the streets of Rome several weeks ago.
The machine kneads the dough, adds toppings, and bakes the pizza in just three minutes. It’s delivered in a pizza box. According to the company’s website, each pizza is being baked at 380°C. Prices start at €4.50. Customers can choose between margarita, diavola, quattro stagioni, and a pizza with pancetta ham and observe the baking process through a little window.
The vending machine replaces chefs and waiters altogether. It’s therefore cheap and operates 24 hours. But will customers accept the vending machine pizza?
So far, the verdict seems to be mixed: The vending machine’s product apparently tastes OK, but some Italians say it’s not really a pizza. On the other hand, chefs in Rome are not intimidated by the new competition and believe that an outstanding pizza needs a little more than just the technical preparation process.
Aitme promises fresh cantine food made by elegant robot arms
German startup Aitme has developed a cooking robot that substitutes an entire cantine kitchen on ten square meters. The robot is filled up with over 40 ingredients and can prepare more than 60 dishes. Classic pasta bolognese, stir fry, and fresh curry bowls are on the menu created by an experienced chef.
Once you order your menu, you can observe how two robot arms mix and match your requested meal. They can prepare six meals simultaneously in small woks. Aitme promises that all ingredients are fresh.
Companies that want to offer fresh meals could potentially save money and space. With no humans involved in cooking and serving, Aitme customers only pay a monthly rent for the robot if they choose to have their own little eatery.
Aitme aims high: The startup wants to deliver its cooking robots to other companies in the first phase. Later, they want to aim for hotels, hospitals, and train stations - places where people might want to purchase a meal outside of regular cooking hours.
Amazon starts to sell “Just Walk Out” technology to retailers
Shopping without standing in line and scanning products - Amazon promises exactly this selling its new “Just Walk Out” technology. It consists of sensors, cameras, and computer vision algorithms that would scan all the products a customer purchases.
According to Amazon, retailers have expressed interest in the technology for years. As a result, the risk of pickpockets would drastically drop.
Amazon offers the hard- and software to install checkout-free shopping. The setup takes a few weeks. According to the tech giant, customers only need a credit card and no additional apps or even an Amazon account.
While the corporation stated that several retailers want to set up the “Just Walk Out” technology, it is uncertain how quickly it will penetrate the sector. For retailers with small margins, the price might be too high.
In the long run, checkout-free shopping might become the norm, pushing millions of retail workers out of their jobs.
Did the pandemic accelerate automation and job loss?
Crises and recessions across history tend to have one thing in common: They stir up the job market and favor automation. With economic pressure on companies, many will opt for automation to save costs in the long run and avoid the current risks of infection and disease. However, The Economist argues that it’s not really clear if the pandemic will speed up automation and put workers at risk.
In Australia, the unemployment rate has reached pre-pandemic levels. And in the United States, the share of people working in routine jobs, which are vulnerable to automation, has even risen.
While the share of routine jobs in Western countries has been declining over the last four decades, employers now notice a labor shortage. Even after the pandemic, many companies struggle to fill in open positions. I believe it might be possible that demographic change is more noticeable in many countries after the economic contraction of 2020. After all, short-term schemes and government stimuli were a distraction because the Baby Boomers are becoming pensioners.
Additionally, import restrictions might have slowed down automation. Due to lockdowns and closed borders, the US alone imported three percent fewer industrial robots than before.
Given that more industrialized and robotized economies have lower unemployment rates than less developed countries, the fear of unemployment due to automation might be bigger than the actual consequences.
Why US manufacturing jobs went to Asian countries
The US Congress recently passed the Innovation and Competition Act to create a stimulus for manufacturing in large corporations and small and mid-sized enterprises (SMEs). With a budget of $250 billion, it is one of the largest bills in US American history.
But why is such a stimulus necessary? What killed the manufacturing jobs? MIT professor Suzanne Berger explains that it was not automation and robots that killed manufacturing jobs in SMEs:
“When we did interviews in 2017, everyone was worried there weren’t going to be any jobs because robots would eat them. We visited strong small and medium-sized enterprises, with up to 500 employees. SMEs represent 98 percent of the firms in manufacturing, employ 43 percent of the workers, and supply major companies. It turned out to be very difficult to find any robots anywhere. One Ohio firm that makes precision screws for companies like Tesla was still using 1940s Davenport milling machines.”
Instead, research and development didn’t take place within the SMEs to improve the market valuation:
"By the 1980s these firms tended to have low market valuations, so financial markets — hedge funds, private equity — descended on them, bought them, and shed factories and workers to drive up stock values. Beginning in the 1990s, a US semiconductor firm could send digital files to Taiwan to actually make the chips. And companies in lower-wage countries — Hong Kong, Taiwan, China — emerged to do the production.”
Reasons to be optimistic about automation and remote work
The EU Research & Innovation Magazine Horizon spoke to several experts about the opportunities emerging from digital technologies in the work sphere. Automation and technology could have important upsides:
Remote work could reduce brain drain in many countries, with young people from low-income countries being able to avoid migration to make a living
Automation could allow for more humane work conditions and jobs without repetitive tasks and the opportunity to engage in meaningful work
Platform economy can connect smaller businesses and individuals, moving the economy away from a corporate focus towards more diversified opportunities
However, progress comes with noticeable challenges. While a few years ago, scientists and tech experts believed that only routine jobs could be automated, advancements in machine learning prove that AI can perform various tasks reliably.
The job market has started to polarize as a consequence of technical advancements. While demand for high-skilled managerial jobs and low-skilled basic jobs has been growing, the picture looks differently for classic middle-class jobs. However, a more flexible and modern education system could reduce the risk of job losses.
Recommendation of the week: The Exponential View Podcast on responsible AI
Many people interact with artificial intelligence without understanding the technology. This could have unintended consequences: AI tends to reproduce biases in the real world and affect workers' job prospects. In Azeem Azhar’s podcast ‘Exponential View,’ he discusses with Dr. Rumman Chowdhury, director of Machine Learning Ethics, Transparency, and Accountability at Twitter, how to practice responsible AI. Listen to the episode HERE.