In last week’s article we took a look at some ways in which the food service industry is stepping up its game, partially in response to the current COVID-19 pandemic. We highlighted the role of innovation in changing the transactional face of how fast food outlets do business, specifically in terms of grappling with the increasing need for contactless relationships. Our discussion generated significant interest in the benefits of robots versus additive manufacturing discussion – after all we know from our earlier article, ‘Pizza, Hot and Fresh – Direct from the…3D printer?’ that additive manufacturing (also known as 3D printing) is both possible and practical in a broad variety of situations. As far back as 2013, NASA was bankrolling the development of a food synthesizer that used clean robots to 3D print a pizza – in under 3 minutes. And the use of such technology could make a huge difference for those with limited access to other options – the agency’s own astronauts, for instance.
But Earth-bound diners unlikely to require a slice of pie printed in orbit around the planet may not be completely on board with the idea. So it is fortunate that if even the thought of eating dinner ‘manufactured’ by a 3D printer kills your appetite, there are now other avenues to pursue. Of course, some menu items naturally lend themselves to automated systems such as those we highlighted last week in ‘Bots as Baristas,’ focusing heavily on the beverage sector. But as the example of Flippy, the automated burger flipper tested by White Castle, illustrated the lack of the human touch may not be a bad thing. Especially if the automated system can do more than just flip a burger. Enter Creator, a Bay Area start-up which has worked on engineering what is said to be ‘[o]ne of the most precise culinary tools on earth.’(1) Eight years in development by a team that includes roboticists, designers, and self-confessed food innovators, the Creator culinary system appears to offer a predominantly (human) hands-off approach to building a single food item: the burger. With a sleek high-tech stainless steel, spotless glass, and finely crafted wood workstation, Creator builds burgers that are 100% customized to each individual consumer’s specifications. Bread is baked daily, the meat is ground to order, cheese is grated directly onto the patty, and all extras are sliced to order: nothing is pre-prepared and the options seem to be varied and unique. Importantly to an enterprise born in the environmentally sensitive state of California, Creator sources all ingredients as locally as possible, thereby cutting down on the ecological cost of doing business.
However, although it is not spelled out explicitly, the automation still seems to require a person to manage it. Per Creator’s website: ‘Creator isn’t the machine so much as it is the diner, the chef who uses the instrument, the dining experience, and the designers who created these robots.’ Furthermore, one of the stated mandates of the company is the provision of a way to ‘[s]upport an intimate, social, human-interaction-rich service experience.’(2) So although Creator’s automated system cuts down the number of human hands through which each burger passes thereby lessening the potential introduction of contamination or the transmission of disease, some hands-on skills are still required.
So what about the Picnic platform – a pizza system designed by a team of engineers at a Seattle, WA start-up? Founded in 2016, Picnic raised over $5 million in additional seed funding to bring to market an artificially intelligent robotic platform can produce 300 12-inch pizzas or 180 18-inch pies per hour. Yes, you did read that correctly: per hour. Resembling a rather uninspiring bank of Xerox machines beneath anonymized ingredients’ hoppers, the machine seems to be plug-and-play-ready and requires minimal operator training to get it up and running. Debuting at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas, NV, this year, the platform certainly impressed attendees who managed to get their hands on the goods, with consistency of product seemingly a major benefit of the system. Of course, robot workers in other manufacturing sectors are known for the consistency and perfection of their output, so it comes as no surprise that this is a strength for Picnic. But we should also remember that, unlike robots tasked with assembling automotive or aircraft parts, the output of robotic chefs inherently resists exact replication. In other words, although equally well made no two pizzas are exactly alike.
But really they do not need to be. The degree of consistency already achieved by Picnic is thanks to the platform’s ‘ability to make adjustments and corrections by using a vision system that can read the size and shape of a dough […] and make adjustments to it.’(3) Using a system of deep learning, the machine moves each pizza along a conveyor belt beneath the hoppers of sauce, cheese, and a range of toppings before feeding them into an oven to cook. And because each pizza emerges largely identical to its cohorts arguments over which one has the most pepperoni might become a thing of the past.
According to Picnic, the bank of hardware is controlled via a mobile app using smart data and cloud-based analytics to streamline the traditionally time-consuming and often wasteful process, allowing for cost savings. Moreover, the company has adopted an unusual modality for getting their systems into restaurants: the machine is free. Well, that’s not exactly true: Picnic has eliminated up-front costs, adopting instead a subscription-based service in which the company will deliver, install, and maintain the equipment. According to an article in TweakTown, a contributor-based tech news website, Picnic’s promise is that ‘You’re not just getting our system, you’re getting an entire suite of services including cloud analytics, around-the-clock performance monitoring, and continuous free software and hardware upgrades for life.’(4)
But what if the local market is already saturated with pizza joints at every crossroads?
Due to the flexibility of its modular system, Picnic is looking to transform its platform to build sandwiches, create salads, and put together bowls as desired. In fact, assuming that processes can be tweaked and tailored to specific dishes, it seems theoretically possible that Picnic could become an efficient tool anywhere that the mass preparation of almost identical meals is necessary.
But, at least to date, Picnic’s platform does not exactly impart the ambiance of ‘fine dining,’ an intangible that we used to enjoy when eating out. After all, the enjoyment of a meal is about more than just eating the food on the plate. It’s about the experience as a whole: relaxing with friends, the back and forth banter around daily specials and custom requests, the romance (perhaps) of a sunset meal delivered to your candlelit table, and the comfort that comes with ‘having been fed.’ There’s something primal to this last point, at least. And with that in mind, and after more than five months of some degree of lockdown/shelter-in-place, it is a relief to see initiatives springing up that restore a degree of ‘normality’ to the dining experience. In some areas, local ordinances are now allowing the closure of streets such that restaurants can set up socially distant outdoor dining opportunities. And with small tables stationed far apart, single-use paper menus, masked waitstaff, and an increased use of disposable items, those of us courageous enough (or perhaps hungry enough) to brave the restaurant may once again dine ‘in company.’ In fact, the only pinch point in this new scenario is the human contact between the restaurant guest and the server. But short of taking a seat at the table and then ordering online – a soulless transaction, after all – there really is no alternative.
Or is there? Let’s go back to robotics again…
Given that we have engineered machines to work with us in other sectors such as healthcare (do you remember Zappy and Violet, the hospital room sanitizing robots?) and manufacturing, why couldn’t we adapt them to work in the hospitality and food service businesses?
Does the very nature of a robot preclude it from becoming a waiter? The smart money says no and, contemplating innovations both here and in Japan, we have to agree. So let’s take a different look at the reality of Robotics as a Service (RaaS) as we meet and greet those who soon might be serving us at our favorite outdoor dining establishment.
Imagine the scene: it’s a beautiful evening, the sun is slowly sinking to the horizon, candle lights flicker, and the meal sitting before you smells amazing. But you do have one tiny need to make it all perfect so you look around and ask for Pepper.
No, not pepper the spice – Pepper the server.
Debuting in Japan in 2015, Pepper is an intentionally approachable robot.
With a recognizable humanoid shape on a rolling pedestal, diminutive stature, and big, somehow expressive eyes, the robot has, for the last few years, been working in Japan in a multitude of roles. From tailored services in the retail sector to a partner in elder care, a classroom assistant to a priest chanting sutras at Buddhist funerals, Pepper is able to turn its opposable-thumb-enabled hands to almost anything it seems. And now, in the age of COVID-19, Pepper is ready to embrace new challenges which include helping to slow the virus transmission by encouraging good etiquette. With Japan increasingly using hotels to house COVID-19 patients with only mild symptoms, Pepper is acting as greeter, receptionist, and emotional support. According to a review in Business Insider, it is programmed to interact with patients using phrases such as ‘I hope you recover as soon as possible,’ ‘I pray the spread of this disease is contained as soon as possible,’ and ‘Let’s join our hearts and get through this together.’(8) And, we have to admit adorably, Pepper wears its own mask hooked over stumpy little ears, encouraging its human compatriots to do the same.
But in terms of the food service industry, for those healthy enough to meet Pepper in better circumstances than COVID-19 quarantine the waffle house may be the place to go. In Tokyo’s Shibuya district, for example, Pepper Parlor Cafe is an innovative space that sees the robot controlling almost all customer-facing interactions. From greeting incomers to taking orders, Pepper uses AI to ‘read’ human facial expressions and come up with menu recommendations based upon what it sees. In an article in the Nikkei Asian Review, staff writer Isao Horikoshi describes the process: ‘Customers place orders through Pepper robots placed near the entrance. They will also help customers decide what dessert to order based on the facial expression of a customer. “Let me recommend a waffle that is perfect for you,” a robot told one customer. “Let me see your face. Hmm, you look a bit tired today.”’(5)
Well okay, we’re not sure how we feel about a robot diagnosis and Pepper doesn’t stop there. It can also interact with customers table-side, take photos, and ‘offer fun, new experiences throughout the parlor.’(6) Moreover Pepper is not the only robot hard at work in the cafe. The entertainment consists of NAO robots that are also humanoid in aspect and have the advantage of four fully jointed limbs to Pepper’s two. However, the NAOs are much smaller and have one role only: ‘[to] perform delicate, precisely choreographed dances […] throughout the day.’(7) For a rather endearing photograph of them dancing atop a table, check out this link. And finally, with a nod towards an earlier generation of bots, the cafe’s Whiz uses a mix of artificial intelligence and self-driving technology to clean up the restaurant after closing. Resembling little more than a vacuum without the charm of even a Roomba, the Whiz – albeit useful – is the least engaging of the robot crew and presumably that’s why it is relegated to after-hours clean-up. Up your game, Whiz, and you might yet get a position front of house!
Although our consideration today has been lighter in tone than usual, the increase in robotics and AI in the food services sector is nonetheless a controversial subject. Whilst a 2018 Fortune poll revealed that ‘72 percent of people said they expect artificial intelligence to take away more jobs than it creates in the next 10 years,’ few respondents seemed to believe it would affect their job specifically.(9) Instead, the CNBC article identified a more subtle disruption generated by the increasing use of robot workers: the threat to job satisfaction. In a 2019 ‘Workplace Happiness Index’ poll conducted by the network in association with Survey Monkey, the three main metrics of job satisfaction for employees were ‘how much meaning they derive from work, how much their colleagues appreciate what they do and how much autonomy they have at work.’(10) And, as the writer notes, it’s hard to be appreciated or feel autonomy when both the process and your coworkers are automated.
So all of this boils down to the notion that, rather than the adoption of novel and disruptive technology, it is perhaps an existential crisis – the loss of meaning and purpose – that could separate human workers from jobs and their paychecks. With that said, even in our high-tech era, there are myriad roles in which human workers are irreplaceable – in academia, law enforcement, research science, politics, the law, the worlds of art and literature, and so on – and this does not seem likely to change in the immediate future. However, for positions that require repetition without innovation or autonomy – taking orders, greeting customers, flipping burgers, brewing coffee, sanitizing surfaces, or bussing tables, for example – bots may free people up to move into more skilled areas, perhaps even in fields that we have not created as yet.
And this might be why the smart money says we should capitalize on the technology. After all, the drumbeat of machine learning and expert systems continues whether we like it or not. Whether it threatens our job satisfaction or not. Because, whether we accept it or not, there’ll always be someone developing an app for that…
Thanks for reading this two-part series on robots, AI, and automation in the food service industry. We hope you’ve enjoyed it and will leave comments and questions below!