IMAGES: Uber and Miso Robotics

Trucks, hamburgers… and the road to robotization

Flippy, a robot designed by Miso Robotics to cook hamburgers in restaurants, has been “hired” by US fast food chain Caliburger. The robot, with thermal and three-dimensional vision, can identify when burgers are cooked, flip them over with an articulated arm, use a different spatula for raw and cooked meat, as well as regularly cleaning them and the grill, while progressively learning on the job.

This week has also seen Uber’s continued move into freight transport based on the 2016 acquisition of Otto, while its autonomous trucks are already transporting cargo commercially in Arizona roads.

I know: I’m not being entirely honest here, and opening myself up to any number of comments about the limitations of these technologies, that they still have a long way to go, and that really they are little more than showcases. In reality, the burger flipping robot can do many other things, and has not put a short-order cook out of a job, who is simply doing things like putting the slice of cheese on each burger, then putting them in the bun and adding ketchup, mustard or whatever. The robot is there to do what the company calls the “hot, greasy and dirty” work, and insists it isn’t going to put anybody out of work, and instead simply improve working conditions.

Meanwhile, the Uber truck only drives autonomously on the highway, with a security driver ready to take the controls at any time, while the company says that it is creating jobs, since drivers are needed to take trucks to a logistics center, swap trailers and attach them to autonomous vehicles and drive to and from the highway, besides carrying out tasks like loading and unloading.

In other words, we are not seeing the robot takeover in action here. What’s more, this has probably cost both companies more money than if they’d just carried on using humans; what they have done is raise their profile. When it comes to digital transformation, focusing on costs is short-sighted. The issue here is the welfare of workers, improving the product or service to customers and the flexibility that can boost the value proposal, etc. Many people seeing these kinds of stories, will dismiss them as publicity stunts or criticize them for their lack of ambition. What they will be forgetting is that this is how change takes place: progressively, stage by stage, conquering small areas with each development, however limited.

If you run a business or are employed in a senior position in an organization, you shouldn’t be dismissing the above as underdeveloped and over-costly but embracing it as pointing the way forward. Sharing this with your colleagues will soon reveal who is capable of designing and leading digital transformation, with those lacking the right mindset given more training and information. Appoint a manager who does not believe in leading digital transformation and you are guaranteed failure, because the digital transformation is not about technology, but leadership, it’s about people, it’s about legitimacy and managing change.

Uber’s self-driving trucks and Flippy the burger flipper are not complete automation processes, and certainly aren’t a failure. They are instead an exploratory phase that will provide advantages to those companies that dare to experiment with it, to gain experience, to rethink their processes. At the same time, of course, they will also project a more modern image, which is also a valid objective.

The road to robotization and digital transformation is not going to happen overnight, and nor is it about replacing all humans, taking their jobs and reducing costs to the maximum. If that’s what you think, you need to take another look.


(En español, aquí)