Are Automation and AI the Future of Restaurants?

As Jobs Disappear, Could Restaurants Become a Battleground For Pushback Against AI & Automation?

In the restaurant industry, where automation and artificial intelligence (AI) have gained traction, signs of a backlash are beginning to emerge. While the recent dip of 800 jobs in the restaurant sector might be attributed to various factors, including the ongoing labor crisis, it could also be an early indicator of a larger, potentially irreversible decline in restaurant jobs due to emerging technologies.

Major restaurant chains like Chipotle, Sweetgreen, and McDonald’s are increasingly experimenting with automation and AI. Wendy’s recently announced a partnership with Google to pilot a generative AI solution called Wendy’s Fresh AI in one of its drive-thru locations. According to industry insiders, AI can provide consistent customer service and operate efficiently, even under pressure.

Beyond AI-powered customer interactions and automated cooking processes, the restaurant industry has seen a surge in digital kiosks, mobile ordering apps, and QR code-based table ordering systems. These technologies aim to streamline operations and reduce the need for human intervention.

The COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated the labor shortage in the restaurant industry, prompting operators to explore automation and AI as solutions to their staffing challenges. Despite offering higher wages and better benefits, many positions remain unfilled due to a lack of interest.

However, the rise of technology in restaurants has led to concerns about the loss of human connection. Some restaurant employees find that the introduction of technology diminishes the personal interaction that customers and staff once enjoyed.

Moreover, there is growing apprehension about job extinction as automation and AI continue to advance. While no major chain has entirely replaced human employees with technology, pilot programs using robots and AI are expanding. Fast-casual chain Sweetgreen has embraced a robotic bowl-making system, hinting at broader applications for automation.

Resistance to technology is starting to surface. Some employees displaced by automation have voiced their concerns on social media and filed complaints with local authorities. This could be the early indication of a broader movement against automation, similar to the Luddite movement of the 19th century.

Professor Sunil Manghani of the University of Southampton suggests that these signals of protest are not anti-technology per se but are reactions to the specific instances where technology threatens livelihoods and communities. As job numbers decline and restaurants increasingly deploy robots and AI, these intermittent signals of resistance may become more widespread.

The restaurant industry, with its status as the second-largest employer in the US, is particularly susceptible to automation. Some studies suggest that over 80% of restaurant jobs could be handled by robotics, potentially resulting in millions of jobs being replaced by AI or automation within a decade.

As other industries also grapple with the threat of job displacement due to technology, the restaurant sector could become a central battleground for a growing backlash against automation and AI. Future politicians may campaign on anti-automation platforms, with restaurants at the forefront of their focus.

While technology has its place in the restaurant industry, striking a balance between automation and employee well-being is crucial. Otherwise, the narrative could shift against automation, leading to more organized resistance against the impending AI and robot invasion.

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