If you've worked in food service, you know that it can make you feel somewhat robotic.
In addition to the pre-programmed and often repetitive nature of customer interactions (there are only so many times per day a person can say "How can I help you?" and really mean it), monotonous tasks like making coffees, flipping burgers, or pouring beers seem like they could be done just as well by a machine.
Today these tasks are starting to become automated, with varying degrees of success. Robo-baristas, grill-bots, and mecha-bartenders are on their way to one million served. But they're not quite there yet.
Beep boop beep boop beep, I'm lovin' it
Miso Robotics' Flippy is a robot specifically designed to cook hamburgers. Depending on the rate at which kitchen staff keep putting raw patties in front of it, Flippy can cook 150 to 300 burgers an hour.
Flippy has learning capabilities that Miso claims allow it to learn from its surroundings and from kitchen staff, but the extent of its thirst for knowledge is unclear, and having only one spatula-equipped arm makes it seem unsuited for too many additional tasks besides its sole goal of consistently producing perfect pucks of meat. However, it does have the capability to swap its own tools using a pneumatic pump system, which, imagining a robot self-equipping kitchen knives, is terrifying.
Another iteration of Flippy has a crab-claw-like scoop:
MIT Tech Review reports that a Flippy robot costs $60,000 and that it is currently working only 10.5 hours per week at CaliBurger in Pasadena, California - a far cry from the $8.28 average hourly wage for fast food workers.
The satirical website News Examiner announced that McDonald's was planning to open its first entirely robot-run establishment in Phoenix, Arizona, as well as 25,000 additional locations by the end of 2016. Don't let the very convincing image of a McDonald's-branded burger bot fool you, though, the article is a confirmed hoax.
However, the quote from the article's (fake) McDonald's manager ("These things are great! They get their work done in a fast and orderly manner, plus they don’t ask for cigarette breaks.") isn't far from what an actual former McDonald's CEO said in response to the announcement of a real robot-run restaurant - this one by Momentum Machines and located (where else?) in San Francisco: "It’s cheaper to buy a $35,000 robotic arm than it is to hire an employee who’s inefficient making $15 an hour bagging French fries."
So there may be robotic helpers in the McKitchen of the future. And as gross as that statement from the ex-CEO about the value of fast food workers is, it overlooks some other potential problems with having robots make our fast food, as pointed out by rival burger chain Carl's Jr.:
And they're stylish, too - a lot of research went into humanizing the robot arms' mannerisms. The smooth movements, swirling of the cup, and friendly "wave" give the Cafe X bots a bit of panache and personality (which is generally hard to convey without a face):
Cafe X isn't the first or only café to take on the challenge of caffeine infusion automation - Beijing's Bubble Lab has created a pour-over robot called Drip:
In partnership with Kalita, they created this absolutely mesmerizing promo:
Bubble Labs also built a robot that serves soft serve cones, and although the following video is in Chinese, it's pretty easy to understand without translating (cute girl presses buttons, machine arm delivers soft serve):
But it wouldn't be a MONTAG article unless we found some way to make this situation dystopian. It's all cute until the robots get a little bit more demanding about your need for sweet treats, as in this Halo Top promotion by Mike Diva:
Robot bartenders are a great science fiction trope - the most recent one that comes to mind is Michael Sheen's android bartender Arthur from the 2016 film Passengers. Most real-life drink-slinging bots aren't quite as eager to dispense wisdom, but (more importantly) they can dispense drinks.
For the thirsty makers out there, Naomi Wu hosts a tutorial on building a bar bot controlled by Arduino that can mix 16 different cocktails. Find instructions here on Github and on Open Builds, or follow her video tutorials:
It doesn't have as much personality as an android, but that could be for the best. According to Isaac Asimov's three laws, an intelligent robot shouldn't be capable of serving us intoxicants anyway:
The obligatory "they're taking our jobs!" wrap-up
No, they're not. Not yet, at least.
While automated burger flippers, glorified vending machines with robot arms for coffee and ice cream, and drink-dispensing mechanisms with or without circuit-frying ethical conflicts have all been proven, they haven't been proven at scale.
And although food service jobs like these can be repetitive and laborious, we're not ready to trust robots with such basic tasks as feeding us. It can all go so wrong, so fast.