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Students returning to campus for this spring semester will find many differences between the Harvard Square they left and the Harvard Square they return to. Even before the pandemic, the landscape of the Square was always shifting beneath our feet — but one recent addition to Brattle Street is stirring the pot in a different way than those that came before it.
A new restaurant, Spyce, is cooking up something new. The eatery’s founders engineered an elaborate automated kitchen that can produce healthy meals tailored to customers’ preferences. Spyce’s automated kitchen prioritizes efficiency and consistency and is designed to accommodate different allergens and dietary restrictions, making their meals accessible. And in a pandemic, fewer hands handling a meal seems like an obvious benefit.
Having Optimus Prime prepare your food bowl might sound too good to pass up. Yet Spyce’s arrival in the Square and its reliance on such large-scale, deliberate automation invites larger questions about the future of labor and human interaction.
The opening of Spyce in our backyard is indicative of a global shift away from human labor and towards automation. Put plainly, automation is everywhere — and we don’t expect it to slow down anytime soon.
Automation doesn’t get rid of all warm-blooded employees: Even Spyce kitchen hasn’t fully erased the need for good old human labor. The company still employs individuals in customer service and to maintain machinery, boasting that, thanks to their mechanical chef, they can actually focus on “engaging, fulfilling” roles rather than “monotonous tasks''. But the fact that employees need to be re-assigned at all suggests that some jobs, perhaps even restaurant cooks, will be chopped by improvements in technology and automation.
We’ve been here before — just take a look at the movie rental industry in the aftermath of on-demand video. But if automation might make certain jobs obsolete, radical technological advances can also bring great opportunity. Take Spyce — the reduced food production costs might lead to a wider accessibility of healthy, high-quality dishes at affordable prices, broadening its demographic reach. Because of Spyce (and the advent of the robot era), more people may have access to high-quality food in a community plagued by gentrification.
This same increase in efficiency and associated cost reduction might also allow for better benefits for those workers who are employed (Spyce, for one, is promising as much). Indeed, it’s possible the job losses might not turn out to be as drastic as it seems, representing more of a large shift from declining to dawning sectors rather than a zero-sum loss. Instead of cooking the food, workers might now be prepping the food, helping customers work a kiosk screen, or delivering meals.
Of course, those shifts might still affect individual people for significant stretches of time. That’s why, rather than try to stop the inevitable (and potentially beneficial) advance of automation, we should plan ahead to lessen the bumps along this road of economic transformation. In transitioning our labor market, we shouldn’t leave anyone behind — automation should serve the people, not the other way around. We must act preemptively to ensure that automation does not worsen pre-existing racial and gender inequities in employment.
A well-thought-out socioeconomic transition could offer an opportunity to fix systemic social issues. In fact, we already have some promising policy contenders. There’s the possibility of a tax on automation that would fund a variety of social programs like making public higher education free for all or equipping workers with the skills they need to succeed in this new labor market. Another proposal, popularized by 2020 Democratic presidential primary candidate Andrew Yang, is developing a universal basic income program or, as Yang dubbed it, a “freedom dividend”. It would guarantee a thousand dollar per month income for every American adult over the age of 18, aiming to eliminate U.S. poverty and offer a financial cushion for those jobs lost by automation at the same time.
There is a greater moral issue underlying automation we cannot ignore. We shouldn’t make the same mistake Dr. Frankenstein made when he created his monster, forging ahead in solitude without any outside deliberation or ethical contemplation. As Spyce opens for business in the Square, we need to remember that our societal discourse has to keep up with the pace of technological innovation.
Before we embrace or condemn the increasingly salient role of automation in our lives, we should consider the broader cultural implications of scientific advancements. What does it mean to belong in a society that prizes efficiency and perfection above all else? How does our “humanity” change with automation? What is the value of our imperfect, flawed, and individual humanity? We need to spend time chewing on these important questions now so we don’t choke on them later.
This staff editorial solely represents the majority view of The Crimson Editorial Board. It is the product of discussions at regular Editorial Board meetings. In order to ensure the impartiality of our journalism, Crimson editors who choose to opine and vote at these meetings are not involved in the reporting of articles on similar topics.
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