The Robotic Straw Man: Robots, Fast-Food Strikes and The Uncanny

Will calls for higher wages lead to a takeover by the machines?
Sep 3, 2013· 3 MIN READ
Willy Blackmore is TakePart’s Food editor.

The Employment Policy Institute has a robot problem.

At least that’s the angle The Huffington Post took after the fiscally conservative think tank ran an ad in the Wall Street Journal last week that criticized Thursday’s fast-food strikes. The layout was dominated by a human-like Motoman robot dumping batter on a griddle, the words “Why Robots Could Soon Replace Fast Food Workers Demanding a Higher Minimum Wage” running above it.

“Today’s union-organized protests against fast food restaurant aren’t a battle against management—they’re a battle against technology,” the ad reads.

In The Huffington Post’s takedown of the ad, the Japanese designer of Motoman tells Eleazar David Melendez that, “the machine was designed for industrial applications and would not be able to replace a cook in a restaurant.”

“ ‘The robot does not have a real capability for that,’ Sam Komiyaji, a marketing manager at Yaskawa Motoman, said in a phone interview from Tokyo.”

In other words, these are not the droids fast-food management is looking for.

“We used this one because it was a real-life instance of something that was immediately recognizable,” Michael Saltsman, research director at EPI, said when I called to ask him about The Huffington Post story. The actual burger-flipping technology that could be utilized in a fast-food kitchen setting looks more like a conveyor belt, he explained. So they went with the Jetsons-esque ’bot instead. “What that pictures were meant to do was to illustrate the concept that the technology exists.”

Saltsman was interviewed for The Huffington Post story too, and said that he didn’t think the ad was misleading at all. The issue is a beyond a non-starter, as far as he is concerned. “It’s pretty bad faith on his [David Melendez’s] part to go through with that story,” Saltsman told me.

This aesthetic divide, the dissimilarity between the anthropomorphic robots of science fiction and the boring, utilitarian machines that are better at doing their jobs, and the convincing of anyone that human-like machines who do human-like work will be replacing flesh-and-blood humans in any workplace—in an auto plant or at Fryolator—has long been a rich point of debate.

Twenty-one years before the first McDonald’s opened in Oak Brook, Illinois, in 1940, Sigmund Freud wrote about the psychoanalytic consequences of interacting with a life-like automaton in his essay “The Uncanny” (.pdf). And while you might not think that an uncannily human-like doll, Olympia, from E.T.A. Hoffman’s short story The Sandman could possible have anything to do with the debate over robotics and labor and fast food, then consider the writing of another Japanese roboticist, Masahiro Mori. In 1970, he wrote a paper introducing the concept of the Uncanny Valley—the idea that when robots (or any other non-human figure) approach a human-like appearance, there’s a sharp drop in their familiarity—they become uncanny. For both Freud and Mori, who places zombies at the very bottom of the Uncanny Valley there’s inherent threat in that uncomfortable familiarity. Writing on the uncanniness of the double, Freud observes that the man who has been duplicated undergoes a dark transformation: “From having been an assurance of immortality, he becomes the ghastly harbinger of death.”

Coincidently, CNN ran a story about cooking robots at the end of last week too. There’s an automaton that makes cookies using 3D-printing technology, and less robot-like gadgets that can calculate nutritional values, detect toxins and rate the freshness of ingredients.

Despite these developments, none of which are available to consumers or commercial clients, author Arion McNicoll writes, “The trend for robots to perform unskilled restaurant jobs has also led to robotic noodle slicers and mechanical waiters, though so far many are mere gimmicks rather than genuine technological solutions.”

In “The Uncanny Valley,” Mori considers automated workers that aren’t in the C-3P0 mold. “Recently there are many industrial robots, and as we know the robots do not have a face or legs, and just rotate or extend or contract their arms, and they bear no resemblance to human beings,” he writes. “Certainly the policy for designing these kinds of robots is based on functionality. From this standpoint, the robots must perform functions similar to those of human factory workers, but their appearance is not evaluated.” This lands robotic arms and, judging by the EPI’s image choice, burger-flipping conveyor belt robots, low on the familiarity scale.

Same goes for the touch-screen ordering that McDonald’s introduced to 7,000 locations in Europe back in 2011, or the automated timers on a deep fryer or the microwaves that reheat much of the pre-prepared foods that are “cooked” in fast-food restaurant kitchens. These aren’t robots, but they do replace and reduce human labor in varying degrees. The industrial kitchen is an increasingly modernized, mechanized space—but it’s still run by humans.

The Employment Policy Institute, which strongly argues against raising the minimum wage, surely wouldn’t mind if striking fast-food workers saw Motoman as a harbinger of the death of their employment. But the ad, while maybe not misleading, per se, reframes the debate as surely as it redraws the face (or, in this case, lends something face-ish) to the army of robotic scabs that’s waiting in the wings. The debate is about wages and management, not “a battle against technology”; the conversation the strikes has brought about might add fuel to the push to adopt more technology at the expense of workers, but that’s by no means the question at the center of the debate—wages are.

In the chart that Mori drew to illustrate The Uncanny Valley—human likeness running on the x-axis, familiarity on the y—a humanoid robot like Motoman lands high above the Uncanny Valley, near the peak of familiarity. In other words, it’s a nonthreatening figure. It’s only in this context, where the humanoid robot is couched as a replacement, or double, that it takes on the uncanny qualities of the Valley. But it’s not difficult to imagine that a consumer-facing robot, one with synthetic skin and an accommodating smile, might be floated someday as a legitimate means of cutting costs and headcount.

It may seem like a longshot, but then again, few thought that the fast-food industry would end up being the battleground for organized labor.