Technology Could Change the Way We Dine

From automated chefs to customer service, technology innovations are underway and looking to transform the foodservice labor force.

May 06, 2016

TUCSON, Ariz. – Watson, IBM’s super robot, took on two “Jeopardy” champions in February 2011 and won. Watson had access to 200 million pages of human information, giving it the obvious upper hand, but the cognitive computer also has the ability to learn, interact and propose solutions. Five years later, Watson and IBM’s cognitive technology continues making headlines, from helping doctors make diagnoses to creating recipes for a food truck at SXSW. Oh, and Watson has a cookbook.

Artificial Intelligence emerged in the late 1940s, but it wasn’t until 1997 when IBM’s chess-playing robot Deep Blue (and Watson’s predecessor) gave the technology one of its biggest breakthroughs. Deep Blue beat the world chess champion after a six-game match that lasted several days. The computer was programmed to solve the complex, strategic game of chess, which enabled researchers to explore and understand the limits of massively parallel processing, according to IBM.

Fast-forward to today, where Artificial Intelligence is transforming many industries, including the foodservice industry. Momentum Machines has built a robot that can make from scratch one burger every 10 seconds in an hour. The company’s cofounder, Alexandros Vardakostas, told Xconomy in 2014 that the automation device “isn’t meant to make employees more efficient. It’s meant to completely obviate them." At that time the company’s website also noted that its automation "does everything employees can do, except better."

Here are a few more examples of how robots are entering the foodservice space: 

  • Domino’s Pizza in New Zealand is planning to test delivery by robot, dubbed the Domino's Robotic Unit (DRU), which is a three-foot tall battery-powered unit that contains a heated compartment for storing up to 10 pizzas, and is capable of self-driving up to 12.5 miles.
  • Andy Puzder, Carl’s Jr. and Hardee’s CEO, is intrigued by the idea of a fully automated fast-food restaurant after visiting the fully automated restaurant Eatsa in California.

With higher minimum wage proposals and the swell of labor costs receiving attention across the United States, it’s not difficult to see where this path is heading.

“When we pull all of this together, the implications are strong for the workforce, particularly with $15 minimum wage hikes,” noted Michael Rogers, keynote speaker and Practical Futurist at this week’s Conexxus Annual Conference.

And it’s not just food prep that automation is encroaching upon. Take customer service, for example, with restaurants using iPads for food ordering, and technology underway where restaurant booths feature a screen with an avatar—the server—that greets guests, jokes with the kids, shows videos on how meals are prepared, and essentially takes away the server/diner experience. In fact, the only time diners would interact with a human would be when food is brought to the table, Rogers explained.

Artificial Intelligence is also making its mark in the service industry as companion robots, performing tasks such as playing checkers. Unlike Deep Blue and Watson, the goal of this technology isn’t to win, but to learn from human interaction and language.

How technology interacts with the world leads back to a fundamental question about employee costs and how the workforce will evolve, noted Rogers. “The ability to automate is cutting into what we can do with our entry-level employees,” he said, adding that most basic, entry-level tasks can be performed more efficiently by computers than humans. “We need to think about more interesting ways to use people,” Rogers suggested. 

Look for more coverage from the Conexxus Annual Conference in NACS Daily and the June issue of NACS Magazine