At the time, I was visiting a space startup building satellites behind a carport. But just behind them - a robot was cooking up burgers. The inventors of the burger device? Momentum Machines, and they're serious about fast food productivity.
"Our device isn't meant to make employees more efficient," cofounder Alexandros Vardakostas has said. "It's meant to completely obviate them."
The Momentum burger-bot isn't remotely humanoid. You can forget visions of Futurama's Bender. It's more of a burger assembly line. Ingredients are stored in automated containers along the line. Instead of pre-prepared veggies, cheese, and ground beef - the bot chars, slices, dices, and assembles it all fresh.
Why would talented engineers schooled at Berkeley, Stanford, UCSB, and USC with experience at Tesla and NASA bother with burger-bots? Robots are increasingly capable of jobs once thought the sole domain of humans - and that's a huge opportunity.
Burger robots may improve consistency and sanitation, and they can knock out a rush like nobody's business. Momentum's robot can make a burger in 10 seconds (360/hr). Fast yes, but also superior quality. Because the restaurant is free to spend its savings on better ingredients, it can make gourmet burgers at fast food prices.
Or at least, that's the idea.
Momentum Machines says your average fast food joint spends $135,000 a year on burger line cooks. Employees work in a chaotic kitchen environment that necessitates no-slip shoes in addition to the standard hairnets and aprons.
By replacing human cooks, the machine reduces liability, management duties, and, at just 24 square feet, the overall food preparation footprint. Resources once dedicated to preparation can instead fund better service.
Of course, businesses are free to spend their savings however they like.
For some, that may mean more quality ingredients or services. For others, it might be competing with other restaurants by maintaining the same level of service and ingredients but offering even lower food prices.
But Momentum Machines' burger-bot isn’t provocative for its anticipated effects on fast food quality. The bot, and other robots like it, may soon replace low-skilled workers in droves. If one machine developed in a garage in San Francisco can do away with an entire kitchen of fast food staff - what other jobs are about to disappear?
Earlier this year, McDonalds employees protested outside the fast food chain's corporate headquarters in Chicago, demanding higher wages. A robotic kitchen might bring improved pay for the front of the house, and a pay cut to zero for the back. Some fraction of the 3.6 million US fast food jobs might be automated by such technology.
While the burger-bot hasn't taken anyone's job yet, Momentum Machines is clearly sensitive to the worry. The firm says they want to help support those who may lose work as a direct effect of restaurants adopting the robot.
"We want to help the people who may transition to a new job as a result of our technology the best way we know how: education."
As new technology destroys one kind of job, it creates opportunities for others. We’ll need fewer line cooks, they say, but more engineers and technicians. The problem isn't that jobs are lost on net, it's the resulting skills gap. Transitioning into new work can be difficult to navigate, especially for low-wage workers.
Momentum Machines wants to help ease the move by partnering with vocational schools to offer discounted technical training for anyone displaced by their robot. Their goal is indicative of the overall tenor of an increasingly heated debate about how AI and robot employment may reduce human employment in the near future.