Last Week Tonight with John Oliver‘s main piece over the weekend was on robots and automation. If you are in the food service industry you can (and should) watch the clip below, but I can also save you a click: Oliver basically says the whole situation around jobs being automated is… complicated.

As we’ve written before, the food service industry in particular is ripe for automation, and it’s one of the topics we covered during our recent Spoon Slack Chat with Megan Mokri, CEO of Byte Technology, Charlie Andersen, CEO of Augean Robotics, and David Rodriguez, Head of Business Development for Kiwi.

Admittedly, all of these companies are working to help bring automation across different segments of the food stack, so they have some skin in the game. But they were still circumspect about its societal benefits and drawbacks. When I asked the panel what the industry should do about the human displacement caused by robots and automation, the response was mostly optimistic (answered copied directly from Slack):

Megan Mokri (Byte): So much to say on this one. The reality is many industries in the US are facing a labor shortage – food and ag is hugely impacted, as is retail. Automation is critical if these industries are to keep pace with growing and shifting consumer behaviors.

Charlie Andersen: Re: automation and the impact on labor, this story is still being written. Certainly, the impact of automation is to enable one person to do far more work, or to remove people from tasks they no longer want to do. But in the process, more tasks are created and new opportunities are unlocked. (in the case of farming, there is way way too much work to do already)

David Rodriguez: The size of the markets we build should increase the total number of human operators! In our case, we need fewer people to do more deliveries, but we do so many deliveries that we need to hire more and more people!

But our Robo-Slack Chat wasn’t all dour news about an impending robot revolution. There are lots of cool things about robots, too!

One is how Byte’s automated smart fridges are stocked. Because the fridges automatically keep track of their contents, Byte has insight into which products are popular and where, and can use that data to power Byte’s demand algorithms and inventory planning, and can even allow for dynamic pricing. Byte also leases out their technologies to CPG and other food service companies, allowing them to more efficiently stock their own Byte-powered fridges.

But you can’t stock those fridges if you don’t have food, and as Charlie Andersen reminded us, agriculture and working on a farm is hard work. Robots can carry out some tasks more safely than a human could. For instance, the Augean Burro can carry 150+ pounds of grapes for hours in 110 degree weather without getting heat stroke or dehydrated. But in addition to labor changes, robots can also push farms towards more organic production because this can also reduce the amount of chemicals needed and the overall environmental intensity needed for fruit and vegetable production.

From that example, it’s easy to see robots as lending a helping hand, but in the city, robots running around underfoot could be seen as more of a nuisance, and become a target for theft or vandalism. One way Kiwi combats this is by designing the robot in a way that creates empathy from people looking at it. For instance, the Kiwi-bot has big eyes, making the robot look “cute.” This cuteness makes mean ole humans reluctant to harm the robot. Rodriguez says that in Berkeley they’ve had zero instances of theft and only a few cases of vandalism.

We are only at the beginning of seeing what robots are capable of and how they will literally change –and complicate– our world. But Slack Chats like this, as well as our upcoming ArticulATE conference in April (get your tickets!) help drive the conversation so we can figure some of those answers out now.

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