Experts are engaged in a furious debate about what will happen when robots get smart enough to do most of our jobs. Will we enter a golden age of leisure and plenty, or will the robot makers get phenomenally rich while the rest of us get dismal prospects? A new, high-tech burger joint where robots do all the cooking is demonstrating how the world might look if the optimists turn out to be right.

Enter Creator's first restaurant at 680 Folsom Street in San Francisco and you won't see any line cooks or waitstaff. They're not necessary. The $6 patties on offer are made, grilled, and assembled entirely by a robot chef, whose complex inner workings are viewable through a clear case. A team of nine "robot attendants" takes orders.

The burgers, made with high-quality ingredients, are even pretty good, according to TechCrunch's Josh Constine, who visited as part of the restaurant's sneak peek before it opens to the public.

"The patties hold together as you munch despite being exceedingly tender. And afterwards I felt less of the greasy, gut-bomb, food coma vibe that typically accompanies scarfing down a cheeseburger," he reports. "It might not be the best burger I've had in my life, but it's certainly the best at that price."

Building a fast food utopia?

That's good news for the company's founders and investors, including Google Ventures and Khosla Ventures, as it means the business shaves a ton of money off the cost of creating a respectable burger, allowing it to offer a tasty product at a lower price. But the amazing tech on display could also fuel the nightmares of those worried that soon we'll all have no way to make money as robots take our jobs.

But Creator actually offers reason to hope. CEO Alex Vardakostas is adamant he's not out to build a restaurant plucked from some sci-fi dystopia. The human touch, he claims, is at the heart of his ambitions for Creator.

"The idea of not talking to someone seems straight up dystopian to me. We're at the point that we firmly believe that you cannot automate human creativity and social interaction. Our utopian future is one where there is more creativity and more social interaction, while staff members also get to be more creative and social," Vardakostas is quoted as saying in Forbes.

In practice, that means working at Creator sounds even cushier than even the rosiest scenarios for low-skilled work in our robot-filled future. 

"Something we got really excited about in 2012 and we're just starting to execute on is reinventing the job of working in a store like this, where the machine it taking care of the dirty and dangerous work," co-founder Steve Frehn explains. "We're playing around with education programs for the staff. Five percent of the time they're paid just to read. We're already doing that. There's a book budget. We're paying $16 an hour. As opportunities come up to fix the machine, there's a path we're going to offer people as repair or maintenance people to get paid even more."

This is only the first store of an unproven concept, and as many commentators note, the history of automated food-prep startups is littered with failure. It remains to be seen if this robo-fast food restaurant idea will appeal to either picky high-end diners or cost-conscious budget ones. Even if Creator one day becomes as big as McDonald's, it is not at all a given that the co-founders will keep their ideals under financial pressure, or that other entrepreneurs in the new robo-economy will share their vision.

In short, Frehn and Vardakostas's dream of decently paid, non-soul-crushing fast-food jobs with the potential for advancement remains just that--a dream. But it's a happy dream. Let's see how it goes.

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Published on: Jun 27, 2018