#60 – Cheeseburgers & Robots

I read about a guy that is perfecting a robot that will build the perfect cheeseburger. His goal is not merely to satisfy the most demanding connoisseur, but he hopes to match the industry standard that pumps out 100 cheeseburgers in an hour.

burger bots
Photo credit: Brian Fenke

Meet Alex Vardakostas. The CEO of Momentum Machines grew up in the fast food business working at his parent’s restaurant making the same cheeseburger hundreds of times everyday, which probably gave him tons of time to think about crazy ideas. After perfecting his burger-making robot, he launched a restaurant concept called Creator. While robots have weaved their way into assembly lines for decades, the present state of affairs still seems to lean toward a robot-adverse mindset. The chanted mantra of mainstream media repeats ADD ROBOT, LOSE HUMAN JOB. Vardakostas sees it as a focused redirection of human potential that could actually open new opportunities for those displaced by technology. In fact, Creator employees get time during their shifts to invest in learning and to chase their own crazy ideas. Could this be a new model for consideration across multiple industries? Or is it just a tasty new experiment?

Photo credit: Brian Fenke

Automation, innovation and efficiency have been the drivers of company bottom lines since the Industrial Revolution. Let’s consider a perspective from William Jevon back in 1865. In factories, the drive for efficiency led to developing industrial machines that delivered the same output with less coal consumption. If you couple automation with innovation, the factory owners looked at this opportunity as a way to increase output rather than limit the consumption of coal. In fact, as these machines became more efficient, people bought more machines that drove the demand for coal up. The original goal of decreasing the consumption of coal actually lead to the increased consumption of coal. What I find interesting and relateable to the robot versus human debate is the harnessing of capacity to do more within the same temporal constraints. Time is one of the most finite resources in the world. Even if those factory owners had the best machine in the world, they could only fuel that machine with 86,400 seconds each day.

What if we considered robotics and other technological developments as ways to regain the capacity of our most treasured resource? Time and human potential are coupled in a dance of constraints and possibilities. The capacity of human beings is often squandered by political systems, belief structures, economic disparity, ideological divide and misaligned education systems. I was extremely fortunate to have been born into a loving family with access to education and opportunity. We never wanted for anything, which is not the case for a large percentage of the population. When pure survival is the priority of your waking hours, whether its securing food, safety or shelter, everything else becomes an afterthought. Like the human body when immersed in freezing water, all efforts are redirected to vital functions supporting life. Is our antiquated public education system preparing all parties of the next generation for the tasks beyond those first slated for elimination by technology? Higher education seems to be equally troubled with the inputs not matching the outputs. Does the large population of out-of-work, loan-burdened graduates justify the double-digit profit growth of major universities? With focus, there is a way to pivot how we learn to match where the world is heading. As a father of four kids, I am constantly thinking of the skills that will be important to surviving and thriving in a world where technology continues to extend its roots throughout all aspects of society. The fruits of which can lead to both positively game-changing results and negatively catastrophic repurcussions.

The nature of innovation is an exercise of piecing together old things in new and unique ways. The first computers were actually human. Katherine Johnson was such a prolific computer that her calculations helped put Alan Shepard into orbit and proved essential to getting him back home. Today, high-performance computers are capable of mind-melting computational performance. Summit, the supercomputer at Oak Ridge National Labs (ORNL), recently earned the coveted #1 position on the list of the Top 500 Supercomputers in the world. The IBM-built machine boasted a performance of 122.3 pedaflops, which according to Stephen Shankland (CNET Senior Reporter) is equivalent to everyone on the planet performing 16 million calculations per second. Let’s go back to human computers for a moment. The human brain is constructed of roughly 86 billion neurons each with thousands of synapses generating signals of around 100Hz. This collection of squishy grey matter excels at pattern recognition, abstract thought, empathy, sympathy, lateral thinking and concepts like humor and emotion. In a pure calculation battle, Summit would crush most humans, but Summit cannot conceive of the idea to build a robot that makes cheeseburgers. Humans are better at constructing the what if questions that are the genesis of crazy ideas. Could a partnership with technology be built to create new pockets of time to cultivate our natural tendency to make new things from nothing?

I found a passion for learning later in life. Most of my experience in school was filled with unfocused, distracted performance in the world of have to tasks rather than the realm of want to explorations. The system almost discouraged chasing curiousity-laden rabbit holes because learning was tied to the unpleasant experience of ingesting facts and projecting them back out. Driving to a lacrosse game with my ten year old recently, we passed a hard-working crew deep in the toils of building new conduit paths for fiber optic infrastructure supporting high-speed Internet service. We discussed the critical importance of the task they were fulfilling because without these plastic tubes, the hair-like strands of glass cannot connect our house to the world. The conversation moved to the concept of work and the different definitions and actions that can be classified as such. I fell back on my want to and have to categorties as we explored the idea of spending time doing things you love. I told him that the more he can cultivate a curious mind and explore ideas that excite him, the more likely he lands in the former rather than the latter.

Our example presents an interesting dichotomy because our ability to learn, collaborate and communicate is limited without the physical labor of lifting shovels full of dirt to free a conveyance in the ground for a transmission medium snaking through our neighborhoods, cities, states and countries. Physical labor is tremendously satisfying, especially when tied to a purpose. I had a sinkhole in my backyard that ended up being ten feet deep, by twelve feet long, by eight feet wide. The culprit was buried construction debris and trees decomposing creating small pockets of air that sought equilibrium with the dirt above them. With limited funds and the grinding mindset developed in part through metabolic conditioning workouts from the CrossFit world, I grabbed my Dad’s old rusty shovel and began to dig it out myself. As I removed the red clay and earth, I fell into a rhythmic pattern that was purpose-driven even though real-time measurements of progress were rather foggy. Each shovelful of dirt revealed large sections of trees, root bulbs, smaller limbs, construction trash, leaves and bramble. The mystery was unveiling at the pace of my shovel. I felt a pure intention each time my foot landed on the top of the spade driving the orange-clad metal into the Earth. Even though I found myself laying on the ground in fits of exhaustion, I was tremendously satisfied with what I could accomplish with a shovel, my body and my will. My thoughts dove deeper than the confines of the hole in my backyard. Was this the most productive use of my 86,400 second daily allocation? My lack of budget to remediate the sink hole coupled with a stubborn desire, deep curiosity and a mind prone to experimentation, I considered it a productive output. On the other hand, if I hired a specialist with the right machine, could I have redirected my time to grow my business, build something with my kids, delve into deep work on a creative project or a stew on a crazy idea that could eventually lead to significant social impact?

Thinking back to the crew building part of my connnection to the rest of the world, I wondered how many of the workers were in want to positions and how many were fulfilling have to obligations. There is no shame in have to work. Providing stability, ability and opportunity for your family is the most noble cause. However, I kept wondering if there were latent potential and unharnessed creative energy within each of them. Next level skills look to build knowledge in domains that are not yet mainstream or even in existence. They will serve as the foundation for new jobs that haven’t been conceived of yet. Many of these new skills are the result of combining many existing skills. The key is looking for connections between disciplines and thoughtfully entertaining crazy ideas.  It can be a moving target but if you stay on top of trends, become comfortable in the beginner’s mind, and maintain a truth-seeking curiosity, it can be really fun to explore these yet to be developed abilities. 

What next level skills should we cultivate to create the best relationship between humans and technology? How can we make sure opportunities to live in want to and not have to are extended to everyone? Shouldn’t it start with identifying things that humans can do better than algorithms and robots? If we free up human capacity through automation, augmented intelligence and robotics, shouldn’t we be considering the parallel path to invest in innovations in the development of the grey matter resources of the human collective? 

notes & Links

2018 Top 500 Supercomputers –  https://www.top500.org/list/2018/06/

More on the human brain and technology – https://www.humanbrainproject.eu/en/


Great questions lead to even better questions. Give me one to explore for a future post.

2 thoughts on “#60 – Cheeseburgers & Robots

    1. I think so, but within that budget we can allocation moments of slack to chase the emergent threads and explore without expectation. Check out Bruce Lipton’s work on the influence of genes.

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