Granted, big cities in China are about as far from small-town Mississippi as you can get. But something’s happening there that is sure to occur here one day.
The March 25 edition of Bloomberg Businessweek magazine tells how the company Yum China Holdings Inc., which franchises KFC, Taco Bell and Pizza Hut stores in the world’s most populous country, is moving rapidly toward replacing employees with robots and using artificial intelligence to create a more personal service for repeat customers.
So far, Yum China, which has 8,400 fast-food restaurants, only has rolled out the changes at a few hundred of its KFC stores. But the company’s plan appears to be working.
At one such store, Bloomberg reported, “Customers line up before a row of touchscreen kiosks, keying in orders while a camera scans their faces to process payment in less than a second. A robot arm whirs to life to prepare an ice cream cone. Diners can choose the joint’s background music via app and listen to a favorite tune while they eat.”
Yum China plans to use the data it collects from these cashless transactions to customize a menu for each of its loyalty program members. The company expects to have 10,000 locations in China by 2021, and this system will be in place at all of them.
This high-tech experience is a far cry from the fast-food restaurants with which Mississippians are familiar. It’s interesting stuff to read about until you realize that these stores are sure to fill the same amount of orders with fewer employees. The elimination of jobs is being overlooked as the world rushes headlong into touchscreens, robots and artificial intelligence.
But there’s no stopping any of these technologies. A cashless touchscreen ordering system is far more efficient than having a cashier, for example. And as fast-food workers in America become harder to keep and more expensive to pay, that increases the incentive to develop machines that can prepare hamburgers or assemble orders of french fries.
What’s happening in China won’t be happening here next month, or even next year. But it’s coming. You can be sure that American restaurants and the people who own their franchises are keeping an eye on ideas like the ones Yum China is rolling out.
Plenty of towns in America, including Greenwood, have a KFC, Taco Bell and Pizza Hut, not to mention a dozen other fast-food chains. These places have a lot of employees, including a good number of young people who are getting their first experience in the working world.
It will be a shame if artificial intelligence and its related technologies keep more young people out of the workforce. More accurately, the challenge is to find other ways for young people to get some work experience that can serve them well throughout adulthood.
So far, an economy in transition has struggled to do that. The lesson for young people is to know how to do something that robots can’t.