By Norman Knight

Becky and I nearly always visit the local McDonald’s before our Wednesday evening choir and bells practice. We tend to get hungry before rehearsal is over so a quick bite helps us focus more on our music than on our stomachs. Our mid-week restaurant stop has become something of a tradition for us.

It can be difficult to eat vegetarian in an establishment known for its hamburgers, but we solve that problem by ordering two Egg McMuffins, “Hold the meat.” We usually sit at the same table, drink our coffee and relax for a spell until it is time to leave for church. Our visits are pretty predictable.

Last week, however, we had a surprise. As we walked through the door, we were greeted by two young gentlemen who obviously worked there. They seemed awfully young, but the hard truth is, these days many people in the workforce seem very young to me. They led us to a kiosk-like structure with a large screen on it and informed us that we were to use this device to place our order.

The two young workers were there to walk us through the process. After some missteps and back-arrowing we completed our order (including our “special order” of a meatless McMuffin) and were led to the counter to pay in cash. I think we could have avoided that step if we had charged it.

So this is the future of fast food. No more encounters with people at counters, no more human voices, no more face-to-face. The kiosk is yet another digital component in our increasingly automized, do-it-yourself modern world. Another opportunity to avoid interacting with people. Although it’s true,we did chat with the two greeters as they delivered our food.

As we were eating, a recent television news item came to mind. The TV report covered “Flippy,” a robot who flips burgers at Cali Burgers, a California restaurant chain. Flippy can flip up to 2,000 burgers a day. It does its job so well that managers had to take Flippy off-line briefly so they could spend more time training the humans to keep up with its output. (I find myself resisting the urge to use the pronoun “he” instead of “it.”) Another California based food chain, Zume Pizza, uses robots to cook pizzas while another robot, “Sally,” serves salads. It’s good to know that in the California robot world both sexes are represented.

The magazine Scientific American published a study by economist Carl Frey and information engineer Michael Osbourne of the University of Oxford that estimates advances in such areas as machine vision and artificial intelligence could put as much as 47 percent of American jobs at high risk of being automated in the coming years. That study was made four years ago.

Another study, this one by Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee, business researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, point out technological advances are destroying jobs, particularly low-skill jobs, faster than they are creating them.

Some economists disagree with such findings saying limited data make it hard to measure just how much automation and technology is affecting and changing the nature of work in the 21st century. Some believe we are in the midst of another Industrial Revolution that will be (already is?) as disruptive as the one more than 200 years ago. Some wonder what changes, if any, should be made in labor markets and businesses to deal with this new reality.

Soon it was time to go to practice. On our way out, we waved at the two boys who helped us. We wondered: once customers become adept at ordering by touchscreen, how will their jobs change? What will they do? Will a human someone still greet us when we walk in?

Norman Knight, a retired Clark-Pleasant Middle School teacher, writes this weekly column for the Daily Journal. Send comments to