An Old Joke and Obsolete Humans

We’ll start with the joke, which apparently goes back to the early days of NASA, but could probably be traced even further:

NASA sends a specially trained monkey and a human astronaut on a space shuttle mission. Each time the blue light flashes, NASA will issue a command for the monkey to perform. Each the yellow light flashes, NASA will issue a command for the human astronaut to perform.

The blue light flashes on. “Adjust coordinates,” orders NASA. The monkey does it. Again the blue light flashes. “Check system settings and make necessary corrections,” orders NASA. The monkey does it. Again and again, the blue light flashes and NASA orders the monkey to perform complex technical tasks, each of which which the monkey carries out perfectly.

FINALLY the yellow light flashes, indicating NASA has a task for the astronaut to perform.

“Well, I’m glad you finally want me to do something,” says the astronaut to NASA. “I was starting to wonder why you sent me on this mission…”

NASA replies, “Shut up and feed the monkey!”

I was reminded of the joke this morning when I read Jonah Goldberg’s piece at NRO. The Mad Dog’s favorite columnist notes that chain restaurants Chili’s and Applebees are automating a surprising amount of the front-of-house experience:

[…]Applebee’s announced that it will install iPad-like tablets at every table. Chili’s already made this move earlier this year.

With these consoles customers will be able to order their meals and pay their checks without dealing with a waiter or waitress. Both companies insist that they won’t be changing their staffing levels, but if you’ve read any science fiction, you know that’s what the masterminds of every robot takeover say: “We’re here to help. We’re not a threat.”

But the fact is, the tablets are a threat. In 2011, Annie Lowrey wrote about the burgeoning tablet-as-waiter business. She focused on a startup firm called E La Carte, which makes a table tablet called Presto. “Each console goes for $100 per month. If a restaurant serves meals eight hours a day, seven days a week, it works out to 42 cents per hour per table — making the Presto cheaper than even the very cheapest waiter. Moreover, no manager needs to train it, replace it if it quits, or offer it sick days. And it doesn’t forget to take off the cheese, walk off for 20 minutes, or accidentally offend with small talk, either.”

Now, as a commenter noted, Presto isn’t going to pick up dropped forks or be able to recommend a wine that suits a specific customer’s specific tastes (although Amazon seems to do a fair-to-middling job when it comes to recommending books and music, so…). And I’d like to think that there’s a level of desire for human contact that kicks in at some point.

However, I can’t imagine that this technological trend will decline — quite the contrary. (Lest I be called a Luddite, I agree with Jonah’s point elsewhere in the article that increased productivity through automation is a good thing in the long run. Doesn’t help the buggywhip manufacturers, though.) And what that means is that sooner or later, a significant portion of folks in the food and beverage game are going to find themselves not only unable to pull down $15/hr., but unable to compete at all with 42 cents/hr. (and likely dropping as the tech advances.)

So what happens to those folks? This is a question I’ve wondered about before. And to bring things back to the joke, what happens to the people who lack the skills even to feed these automated monkeys?


About profmondo

Dad, husband, mostly free individual, medievalist, writer, and drummer. "Gladly wolde he lerne and gladly teche."
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2 Responses to An Old Joke and Obsolete Humans

  1. The Ancient says:

    “So what happens to those folks?”

    Ask not for whom the bell tolls:

    More seriously, this has been going on for decades in the restaurant business. Remember when McDonald’s redesigned its cash registers to accommodate workers who couldn’t add or subtract?

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