When Robots Replace Burger-Flippers and Lawyers

Can robots replace burger-flippers? How about lawyers?

Tools have been around for thousands of years, making a human job faster and easier; try banging a nail in without a hammer.

Machines, complex combinations of parts that are either human-operated or human-started, have existed for far less than that. With a Gutenberg press, you can print hundreds of copies of printing with just 1-2 people operating the machine. A washing machine will wash your clothes after you just press the right buttons.

What are robots?

Robots add computers with storage an algorithms to machines so they can become autonomous.

For decades, we bought vacuum cleaners from Hoover or, more recently, Dyson. They make it easier and faster to clean floors than sweeping. We exchange an hour of sweeping labour for 20 minutes of labour plus $100 in capital to buy the machine.

iRobot's Roomba adds knowledge and rules. We don't tell it where to go, we just tell it, "do this floor" and it does. We trade the last 20 minutes of labour for a $500 machine.

Yet, there always has been a sense that the basic jobs replaced by robots were never those that required too much intelligence. After all, how hard is it to know where on the floor it is dirty? It is a low-intelligence job, one suited to a robot.

However, it turns out that many jobs really aren't so much higher intelligence.

Making a good burger is an easy one. While those of us who grill take pride in our artist's sense of making it "just right", restaurants are looking for the right burger for the lowest cost. It has to be just the right quality for the given establishment, but for the same quality, price in artistry gives way to lower cost. Besides, artists are notoriously inconsistent, and a business owner wants nothing more than consistency.

According to Eater, The burger-making robot is coming to an Eatsa restaurant in San Francisco.

Low-cost or minimum-wage employees can be too expensive.

To some degree, this is unsurprising. San Francisco has a high minimum wage, increased today from $12.25 to $13 per hours. When your labour is expensive - and rising annually - capital looks increasingly appealing. But it is happening in other jurisdictions as well. If the R&D investment in developing the robot can be reused not just in San Francisco or California, but across the country or globally, the return gets higher.

However, it isn't just lower-wage burger cooks who are at risk.

One would think that lawyers, with their many years of training and hard-won experience, are immune to replacement. Perhaps not.

A 19-year-old British student created a chatbot that managed to overturn over 160,000 parking tickets, with zero additional human interaction.

The bot simply did what most lawyers do:

  1. Gather information from the customer
  2. Follow the rules - as complex as they may be - for finding exemptions
  3. Submit the exemption
  4. Enjoy the fruits of victory

As humans, we have a tendency to confuse judgment with knowledge. Most lawyer tasks are no different than burger-flippers: they have knowledge and apply rules. In the case of lawyers, it took years of schooling and experience to gain sufficient knowledge, as there is a much greater fount of knowledge necessary. Nonetheless, it is just knowledge applied to a (possibly-complex) flowchart.

Knowledge plus rules of a flowchart can be replaced easily with a computer. Applying rules (algorithm) to inputs (knowledge) is precisely what a computer is designed to do.

Does this mean that many more jobs at risk? Definitely.

Does it mean that humans are entering a future of scarce jobs? Definitely not.

It means that tasks that require no judgment, only knowledge plus rules, however complex they may be, can be performed by automated systems, i.e. computers and robots.

It means that a burger that used to cost $10 will now cost $7 or $8, while providing better service and higher profit for the business owner. It means that getting a lawyer to fight your parking ticket at $75-100 will become a relic of history as you pay $10 for a chatbot to do it for you more reliably, quickly and consistently.

It means that you now have an extra $2-3 to spend from that burger and an extra $65-90 from the lawyer, not to mention higher surplus profit from the burger shoppe owner and chatbot operator.

It means many more people buying burgers or contesting tickets, as it becomes cheaper to do so.

What exactly will you spend that money on? It doesn't matter. Whether you save it, which means higher investments, or spend it on more services, the economy grows. This leads to more demand, but especially for services that require judgment. The lawyer who tries the complex case, the chef who designs new meals, the architect who designs new building or software all become more valuable as demand for all of those increases.

The malaise of many warning about the dangerous-to-jobs rise of the robots confuse knowledge with judgment. Knowledge is always a necessary prerequisite for judgment, but knowledge alone is insufficient for payment. Knowledge plus judgment, real skills, will continue to become the valuable commodities. More opportunities will arise for using judgment, which all of us possess to varying degrees in different fields.

The real reason a great CEO gets paid millions is not for his or her knowledge, but for the ability to use that knowledge to make excellent judgments. Indeed, the smartest executives I have ever advised as a consultant were those who knew they had not the most knowledge - they paid me to bring them much more knowledge! - but those who knew how to synthesize the knowledge and make great judgments.

The future is full of robots, machines that perform knowledge-plus-rules-based actions, leaving true judgment to humans, who will find ever more opportunities to use that knowledge. Welcome it.