An AI-powered robot will soon be assisting kitchen staff at fast-food joints. Here's how this could impact employment and business profits.
In March 2017, kitchen staff at a CaliBurger restaurant in Pasadena, CA, met a new coworker unlike any other: A robot named Flippy.
Created by Miso Robotics, Flippy is an AI-powered robot that assists kitchen staff in flipping and grilling burgers at the global fast-food chain CaliBurgers. Through its computer vision and deep learning software, Flippy is built to handle "the hazardous, tedious, time-intensive aspects of grilling," from prep work to the final assembly of the burgers, according to the company. (Here's a video demonstration that shows Flippy flipping burger patties and assembling them on buns.)
And because of its deep-learning software, Flippy can also apply the experience it gains to future tasks.
"Though we are starting with the relatively 'simple' task of cooking burgers, our proprietary AI software allows our kitchen assistants to be adaptable," said David Zito, CEO of Miso Robotics, in a press release. Thus, Flippy "can be trained to help with almost any dull, dirty or dangerous task in a commercial kitchen—whether it's frying chicken, cutting vegetables or final plating."
Like other businesses that use robots to work closely with humans, such as Ford, CaliBurger is employing Flippy as a "co-bot," or collaborative robot, that is operated by and can work alongside kitchen staff. It can also fit into kitchen setups without having to significantly reconfigure the layout.
Flippy isn't the first robot to assist humans in the workplace—they have been deployed at factories, at hospitals, at schools, on cruise ships, and even behind the bar. According to a Gartner report on automation in the workplace, there is an average of 66 robots per 10,000 global workers. And since, for the first time in history, Americans spend more money at bars and restaurants ($54.857 billion) than on groceries ($52.503 billion), the restaurant industry is a ripe spot for automation.
John Miller, chairman of Cali Group, said that Flippy will help make food "faster, safer and with fewer errors" in a press release. Manuela Veloso, head of machine learning at Carnegie Mellon University, told TechRepublic that she sees Flippy as a "great robot" that will be "particularly useful when the number of burgers to cook is continuous—very large."
"We have built Flippy to work with kitchen staff, not displace them," Zito told TechRepublic. "Restaurant managers and chefs often discuss key pain points in the kitchen, including a consistently high turnover rate and tough environment of working in the kitchen. These are just some of the problem areas that Flippy is designed to fix." Zito said that Flippy can help companies boost productivity and keep talent. And, by acting as a "kitchen assistant," taking over when a human has more important tasks, Flippy gives staff the chance to move into different roles, such as ones that involve more interaction with customers. Also, said Zito, the new arrangement may give chefs a chance to experiment on the menu and staff to learn how to operate the robotics system. "We're just scratching the service of what automation can do in the kitchen and we're excited to help it evolve in a way that will benefit restaurant workers around the world," he said.
In terms of the economic impact, J.P. Gownder, vice president and principal analyst serving infrastructure and operations professionals at Forrester Research, thinks Flippy would "take away some of the repetitive—yet important—tasks in a quick service restaurant, modestly reducing the number of people required to staff the kitchen."
But beyond completing tasks, there's another benefit to employing Flippy at your fast-food joint: Public health.
Because of Flippy's ability to monitor temperature and timing, said Gownder, it will "increase quality by making sure food is prepared uniformly, and can also reduce instances of food-borne illness by following guidelines precisely, which human workers can't do." Companies could see financial gains as a result of both the reduced kitchen labor costs and safety benefits, he said. Also, gaining a "reputation for high quality, safe food could also potentially drive customer interest," which impacts the success of a company, said Gownder.
Flippy wouldn't take away enough tasks to significantly impact kitchen workers, Gownder said—more likely, it will "modestly affect employment by a couple of people per quick service restaurant location."
And, as reported by companies that use robots, the machines primarily help perform jobs that have been tedious, dangerous, or difficult to fill by human workers.
The burger-flipping robot will make its debut in 2018. By the end of 2019, it is expected to be used at more than 50 restaurants in the CaliBurger chain.
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