Fast food workers in search of higher wages staged a national protest yesterday, prompting hundreds of arrests in cities across the United States. This comes amidst a widespread cultural debate regarding the minimum wage and the infeasibility of living on it full-time. The industry's employers, according to James O'Toole of CNN, could respond by speeding up the process by which most fast food jobs become automated.

While some argue that human interaction is a bedrock of industry hospitality, it's not far-fetched to imagine a future where machines perform most fast food duties. Anyone fortunate enough to spend time in a Wawa or Sheetz knows how little contact is necessary for a satisfying experience. Companies such as Panera, Chili's, and Applebee's have recently announced projects that will further incorporate technology in their restaurants, potentially decreasing their need for servers and register staff. More and more restaurants are introducing easy-order kiosks that operate similar to a high-tech vending machine, the produce emerging nearly unseen from the kitchen.

James O'Toole, who authored the CNN piece, notes that many forecasters predict a gloomy future for fast food workers:

"In a widely cited paper released last year, University of Oxford researchers estimated that there is a 92% chance that fast-food preparation and serving will be automated in the coming decades."

He warns that technologies like self-driving cars and IBM's Watson could threaten the livelihoods of delivery drivers and bartenders, among others. Still, these sorts of technological advances are decades away. O'Toole interviewed one food industry expert who scoffs at the thought of machines taking as many as 92% of jobs. Five to ten percent is more likely, he said.

Keep reading about automation and fast food jobs at CNN Money

Photo credit: Lisa F. Young / Shutterstock