The Robot-Powered Pizza Shop

Note: The following is an excerpt from my new book The Fourth Age: Smart Robots, Conscious Computers, and the Future of Humanity.

Imagine you own a pizza restaurant that employs one cook and one waiter. A fast-talking door-to-door robot salesman manages to sell you two robots: one designed to make pizzas and one designed to take orders and deliver pizzas to tables. All you have to do is preload the food containers with the appropriate ingredients, and head off to Bermuda. The robot waiter, who understands twenty languages, takes orders with amazing accuracy, and flawlessly handles special requests like “I want half this, half that” and “light on the sauce.” The orders are sent to the pizza robot, who makes the pizza with speed and consistency.

Let’s check in on these two robots on their first day of work and see how things are going:

  • A patron spills his drink. The robots haven’t been taught to clean up spills, since this is a surprisingly complicated task. The programmers knew this could happen, but the permutations of what could be spilled and where were too hard to deal with. They promised to include it in a future release, and in the meantime, to program the robot to show the customers where the cleaning supplies are kept.
  • A little dog, one of those yip-yips, comes yipping in and the waiter robot trips and falls down. Having no mechanism to right itself, it invokes the “I have fallen and cannot get up” protocol, which repeats that phrase over and over with an escalating tone of desperation until someone helps it up. When asked about this problem, the programmers reply, snappishly, that “it’s on the list.”
  • Maggots get in the shredded cheese. Maggoty pizza is served to the patrons. All the robot is trained to do with customers unhappy with their orders is to remake their pizzas. More maggots. The robots don’t even know what maggots are.
  • A well-meaning pair of Boy Scouts pop in to ask if the pipe jutting out of the roof should be emitting smoke. They say they hadn’t noticed it before. Should it be? How would the robot know?
  • A not-well-meaning pair of boys come in and order a “pizza with no crust” to see if the robots would try to make it and ruin the oven. After that, they order a pizza with double crust and another one with twenty times the normal amount of sauce. Given that they are both wearing Richard Nixon masks, the usual protocol of taking photographs of troublesome patrons doesn’t work and results only in a franchise-wide ban of Richard Nixon at affiliated restaurants.
  • A patron begins choking on a pepperoni. Thinking he must be trying to order something, the robot keeps asking him to restate his request. The patron ends up dying right there at his table. After seeing no motion from him for half an hour, the robot repeatedly runs its “Sleeping Patron” protocol, which involves poking the customer and saying, “Excuse me sir, please wake up” repeatedly.
  • The fire marshal shows up, seeing the odd smoke from the pipe in the roof, which he hadn’t noticed before. Upon discovering maggot-infested pizza and a dead patron being repeatedly poked by a robot, he shuts the whole place down. Meanwhile, you haven’t even boarded your flight to Bermuda.

This scenario is, of course, just the beginning. The range of things the robot waiter and cook can’t do is enough to provide sitcom material for ten seasons, with a couple of Christmas specials thrown in. The point is that those who think so-called low-skilled humans are easy targets for robot replacement haven’t fully realized what a magnificently versatile thing any human being is and how our most advanced electronics are little more than glorified toaster ovens.

While it is clear that we will see ever-faster technological advances, it is unlikely that they will be different enough in nature to buck our two-hundred-year run of plenty of jobs and rising wages. In one sense, no technology really compares to mechanization, electricity, or steam engines in impact on labor. And those were a huge win for both workers and the overall economy, even though they were incredibly disruptive.

To read more of my new book, The Fourth Age: Smart Robots, Conscious Computers, and the Future of Humanity, you can purchase it here.

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