Intelligent Machines

Robotic Chefs Are Getting Better—If You Like Fast Food

Machines are increasingly able to produce food you may actually be willing to eat.

Cordon Bleu chefs needn’t worry about losing their jobs to robots just yet. But a number of startups think that some straightforward culinary tasks could soon be automated in fast food kitchens.

This week, TechCrunch reported that a company called Miso Robotics has developed a new burger-cooking robot called Flippy. The robot arm uses a selection of tools to place patties on a grill, monitor how they’re cooking with cameras and thermal sensors, then drop them onto a bun ready for a human to garnish.

The results aren’t as graceful as a fine-dining chef—rather, patties appear to be dropped onto your bun with the elegance of a trainee burger flipper. But the results have impressed the restaurant chain CaliBurger enough for it to try the technology out in 50 restaurants in the coming two years.

Elsewhere, Silicon Valley startup BeeHex has developed a robot that can 3-D print pizzas. Initially kick-started by NASA funding in an attempt to find new ways to provide food for astronauts, the device squirts out dough, tomato sauce, and cheese to form something resembling a pizza in just one minute, then cooks it for five more. The firm’s stellar aspirations have been abandoned for now, though: instead, the robot will pop up in theme parks and malls over the coming year.

While you're waiting for your automated dinner to arrive, other robots may be happy to fix you a drink. Cafe X in San Francisco, for instance, will deliver you a steaming coffee via one of its robotic baristas, while Las Vegas is about to get a robotic bartender to whip up cocktails.

What is clear from these machines is that roboticists are making progress in automating food production. In 2015, for instance, we looked at a system that used two robotic arms to make a rudimentary salad—but picking up soft and unpredictably shaped items items is difficult for robots, and mimicking human knife skills is just as tough. Needless to say, the results were only likely to impress if you particularly enjoy thick-cut cucumber.

Instead, the newer robots are designed to bite off more manageable kitchen roles, which makes them more likely to succeed. And, particularly in the case of BeeHex, their developers are unafraid to have them perform the tasks using non-human approaches, which seems to yield positive results. Just don't ask for a salad yet.

(Read more: TechCrunch, Business Insider, “Robots Start to Grasp Food Processing,” “Robotic Grocers Have Learned How to Handle Your Vegetables”)

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