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When The Automatons Explode

July 05, 2017


By Andrew McAfee and Erik Brynjolfsson

As automation becomes cheaper and robotics innovation accelerates, how we work and who we work with will change. In this excerpt from their new book, “Machine Platform Crowd: Harnessing Our Digital Future,”(W.W. Norton & Company) MIT Sloan’s Andrew McAfee and Erik Brynjolfsson identify five areas driving automation and consider where humans fit in the new world of work. 

San Francisco-based fast causal restaurant Eatsa (pictured above) —  where customers order, pay for, and receive meals without encountering any employees — wants to do more than virtualize the task of ordering meals; it also wants to automate how they’re prepared. Food preparation in its kitchens is highly optimized and standardized, and the main reason the company uses human cooks instead of robots is that the objects being processed — avocados, tomatoes, eggplants, and so on — are both irregularly shaped and not completely rigid. These traits present no real problems for humans, who have always lived in a world full of softish blobs. Most of the robots created so far, however, are much better at handling things that are completely rigid and do not vary from one to the next.

This is because robots’ senses of vision and touch have historically been quite primitive — far inferior to ours — and proper handling of a tomato generally entails seeing and feeling it with a lot of precision. It’s also because it’s been surprisingly hard to program robots to handle squishiness — here again, we know more than we can tell — so robot brains have lagged far behind ours, just as their senses have.

But they’re catching up — fast — and a few robot chefs have already appeared. At one restaurant in China’s Heilongjiang Province, stir-fries and other wok dishes are cooked over a flame by an anthropomorphic purple robot, while humans still do the prep work. At the Hannover Messe Industrial Trade Fair in April 2015, the U.K. company Moley Robotics introduced a highly-automated kitchen, the centerpiece of which was a pair of multi-jointed robotic arms that descended from the ceiling. These arms emulated movements made by master chefs as they prepared their signature dishes. At the fair, the arms whipped up a crab bisque developed by Tim Anderson, a winner of the UK’s televised “MasterChef” competition. One online reviewer said of the dish, “It’s good. If I was served it at a restaurant I wouldn’t bat an eye.” Here again, though, food preparation had to be done by a human, and the robot arms had no eyes, so they would fail if any ingredients or utensils were not exactly where they were expected to be.

The most advanced robot cook the two of us have seen is the hamburger maker developed by Momentum Machines, a startup funded by venture capitalist Vinod Khosla. It takes in raw meat, buns, condiments, sauces, and seasonings, and converts these into finished, bagged burgers at rates as high as 400 per hour. The machine does much of its own food preparation, and to preserve freshness it does not start grinding, mixing, and cooking until each order is placed. It also allows diners to greatly customize their burgers, specifying not only how they’d like them cooked, but also the mix of meats in the patty. We can attest to their deliciousness.


Continue reading the full blog on MIT Sloan School’s news site here.