Can robot chefs re-open restaurants?

A survey on the robotic restaurant industry.

A survey on the robotic restaurant industry.

Robots? Restaurants? This would’ve all seemed too sci-fi in 2019, but we are about to skip a decade of automation adoption due to the coronavirus. The future is here, and we no longer need humans to get us fries in a drive-through — so these companies claim.

Free from Pexels, with some visitors from well-funded robotics startups.

What are the technologies that enable robotics kitchens? These companies all look like framing classic problems in robotics in specific contexts related to the foodservice industry. They don’t need to push the limits of the research frontier — they need to put research in the right place.

What does this mean for the food we get? I think restaurants that adopt these will take a 10% hit on peak flavor and experience for the potential of 100% consistency.

Pick and place — a reasonable challenge

Pick and place is a classic problem in robotics. I’ve heard multiple of my colleagues rant at the boredom of this problem, but it comes up everywhere: logistics, manufacturing, delivery, cooking, etc.

You have and object in position A, and it needs to move to position B.

This ultimately is what 90% of cooking at scale is. Ingredient i needs to go into dish j at time t. I don’t think there’s a good mechanism for robots to feedback based on taste (e.g. the magic of salting a dish from 0 to perfect and getting many flavors to emerge), but I do think robots can repeat these tasks.

I for one would be totally happy if a robot was making my sandwich at a subway, maybe I am just a clean freak. (Not that I eat at subway, but you get the point.)

Miso Robotics | The Future of Food is Here
Flippy is the world’s first autonomous robotic kitchen assistant that can learn from its surroundings and acquire new…

Dexai Robotics | The Smart Sous Chef In Your Kitchen
DEXAI ROBOTICS TERMS OF SERVICE AND PRIVACY POLICY Terms By accessing the website at, you are agreeing to be…

Interested in pick and place? Read more about it here, or maybe watch this video, or check out my colleagues at Berkeley. What makes it hard:

  1. the infinite number of potential objects.

  2. the infinite orientations of said objects.

  3. humans are really good competitors.

I wrote about progress in this area here.

Robots are Ready for the Real World
The new startup, Covariant, from UC Berkeley Artificial Intelligence Research shows the robots can do it in the big…

Planning and routing — a safe option

This is a solved problem. I remember watching talks in my internship at Facebook about how the robots can navigate spaces without a map: they just need a goal. When you give a robot a map, it’s an easy problem.

This seems like an amazing way to keep social distancing rules intact.

Strap the robot with redundant sensors, tell it to stop moving when an unknown object is too close (customer), and get to a table to deliver food. Remember: a restaurant owner can scan their floor-map and upload it to the robot, so it knows exactly where to expect chairs, tables, other robots, etc.

Does this mean my food will never get left out to chill off on the kitchen-server border? Sadly, no.

Bear Robotics, Inc. | Future of Restaurants
​Revolutionize the restaurant and food service industry using Robotics & AI. Based in Redwood City, CA, Bear Robotics…

Dextrous manipulation — far out

Scroll time a tab on this website and you see a complex robot hand. Either this startup has some research it isn’t sharing, or it’s trying to build hype. Robots are just starting to solve tasks like Rubik’s cubes and finger twirling, and they expect it to soft beat eggs with a whisk?

I do think there’s a time when this will all be doable, but having robots do all the dextrous tasks of cooking is not on the menu for the next few years (I think it needs a decade).

Moley — The world’s first robotic kitchen
Dear Customer! Thank you for the interest to our product. Currently the product is being under development, however you…

Some other reporting and related areas.

There have been many attempts to capture the novelty of robotics by opening human-less restaurants or coffee shops. The automating of the food to the table takes more coordination than a few robots in a restaurant. Looking at this in the context of the supply chain could be the more valuable venter — figure out how to automate and optimize the supply chain with humans out of the loop.

Food robotics pioneers take orders for growing industry appetite — The Robot Report
This week, I attended the one-day Food Robotics Summit in San Francisco. The event featured speakers from many of the…

Some of San Francisco’s robot-run restaurants are failing. It could simply be that we still want to…
The robot revolution in San Francisco has begun. Or has it? The tech-centric city has seen an automized restaurant…

I love the takeaway of the last article that “maybe we still want to be served by humans,” which I think is a neglected point as we push to automate. I think we need to make sure automation is doing good for all (physical, emotionally, and more) before we just pour money into the checking accounts of a few technology brands.

Democratizing Automation
Getting everyone to benefit from the artificial intelligence boom could be more challenging than some

As an AI researcher and a cook, maybe this is my calling? I actually see applications like this being interesting to me: 1) they make something that touches the world and 2) I am sure there are plenty of fun problems along the way.