It’s probably inevitable that a T-1000 will return from the future to terminate John Connor. But there is still something we can do to prevent a TIOS from eliminating the cashier at your local McDonalds.
In Europe, McDonalds has ordered 7,000 TIOSs (Touch Interface Ordering Systems) to take food orders and payment. In America, Panera Bread will replace all of their cashiers with wage-free robots in all of their 1,800 nationwide locations by 2016. There is even a burger-making robot that can churn out 360 gourmet hamburgers per hour.
I, for one, welcome our new fast-food robot overlords. I’m just not ready for them yet.
As I noted earlier this week, we are all much better off because of 19th century workers who lost their farm jobs. In the long-turn, we’ll also be better off because a HAL 9000 is flipping our burgers and freeing up the Hals and Hallies of the world for more productive work. But in the short-run, the use of robot replacements for low wage employees will hurt the poorest, most low-skilled workers.
The main advantage such workers have now is that they are cost efficient. Fast-food businesses are currently willing to hire low-skilled workers and serve as remedial-training vocational schools because it’s in their economic self-interest to do so. But raising the minimum wage takes away that incentive and will motivate businesses to replace those workers with automated machines.
It’s certainly the rational choice. If you were the owner of a fast-food restaurant, would you rather be staffed by efficient, reliable robots or low-skilled workers (e.g., teenagers, ESL-adults) who tend to have higher than normal human problems? If it suddenly becomes cheaper to buy robots than pay a premium for human labor, what do you think businesses will choose?
We already have the answer—you can find it at your local gas station. If you are younger than 40 you aren’t likely to remember full-service filling stations (unless you live in Oregon or New Jersey where self-service if forbidden by law). Yet they were once the norm.
In 1950, there were over 81,000 gas stations and only about 200 self-service stations (almost all in California). It wasn’t until the two gas shortages in the 1970s (1973 and 1979) caused higher fuel prices which led consumers to look for pricing relief. Almost overnight, full-service stations became all but extinct—taking an entire sector of low-skilled jobs with it.
Proposals to rapidly increase the minimum wage would have the same effect. A small group of employees would see their pay increase while many more would find their jobs disappearing completely, never to come back. Keeping the minimum wage at it’s current rate (or, better yet, eliminating wage floors completely) would allow for a smoother transition and give low-skilled workers time to adjust.
Sometimes what initially appears to be a noble and humane idea has unforeseen and dramatic consequences. Proponents of minimum wage increases have good intentions. But so did the engineers at Cyberdyne Systems. And we know how that turned out.