Home Tech ‘Eat the future, pay with your face’: my dystopian trip to an AI burger restaurant

‘Eat the future, pay with your face’: my dystopian trip to an AI burger restaurant

0 comment
'Eat the future, pay with your face': my dystopian trip to an AI burger restaurant

ohOn April 1, the same day the new $20-an-hour minimum wage for fast-food workers in California went into effect, a new restaurant opened in northeast Los Angeles with a notoriously short staff in human staff.

CaliExpress by Flippy claims to be the world’s first fully autonomous restaurant, using a system of robots powered by artificial intelligence to produce fast food burgers and fries. It still takes a small number of humans to push the machines’ buttons and prepare the burgers and toppings, but the companies involved tout that using their technology could reduce labor costs, perhaps dramatically. “Eat the future,” they offer.

I visited CaliExpress last week to find out what an all-American lunch served with a touch of existential dread tastes like. When I entered the restaurant, located near CalTech University in Pasadena, I was greeted with giant signs advertising the “wonder of the AI-powered frying robot,” but few actual customers. Most of the people inside were other journalists. A television crew hovered over the roasting machine.

The space was decorated with early prototypes of robotic arms, as well as a riff on Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel, with a human hand reaching out not toward the hand of God, but toward the claw of a robot holding French fries.

One of the first things I see is this sign offering me $10 off if I sign up for this facial recognition system to “pay with just a smile.” pic.twitter.com/ZxLtLeHWCU

—Lois Beckett (@loisbeckett) April 12, 2024

I placed my order at a self-service display, where my robot-made cheeseburger and fries cost $15 plus tax. A sign urged me to “pay with my face,” offering me $10 to sign up with a company called PopID to link my face to my credit or debit card. “Pay with just a smile!” she urged. I did not.

The burger joint is a collaboration between several companies using it as a “test kitchen” for the future of fast food technology. The machine to make the burgers is produced by Cucina, a company focused on the automation of food production, which described its “BurgerChef” as a solution to the “65% increase in wages in the food sector in the last 15 years.” . The French fry-making robot, Flippy, was created by Miso Robotics, a local startup founded by a group of CalTech graduates.

Denise Koons, who works with PopID, the “biometric ordering” facial recognition company, gave me a tour of the kitchen. She demonstrated the different stages of my order. She pressed a button on a nearby screen. The BurgerChef ground a single wagyu steak patty to order and then scooped it out of a tube and stuck it between two metal plates to brown it. One hundred and ninety-five seconds later, a plastic arm swiveled to receive the golden burger, finally dropping the meat into a waiting container.

I had to go behind the kitchen counter to film the footsteps closer. This is the grill robot, “BurgerChef” from Cucina, starting the cooking process of a single burger pic.twitter.com/xIzoCo6Yks

—Lois Beckett (@loisbeckett) April 12, 2024

The BurgerChef was a big, boxy piece of equipment that looked no more threatening than a toaster oven and wasn’t particularly exciting to watch. Flippy, however, was the real star of the place and absolutely terrifying.

It was humanoid enough to be unsettling, with a huge snake-like arm extending from the ceiling, suspended above a frying station protected behind a transparent window. She pressed another button and the arm lifted a waiting metal frying basket and maneuvered it to the side, where a predetermined amount of frozen potato slices fell into the basket. Then Flippy dipped the basket into the hot oil and we waited.

Flippy was originally conceived as a grill master robot that could flip burgers, hence the name, Rob Anderson, one of the co-founders of Miso Robotics, later told me. But operating a grill—keeping track of the burgers, cheese, buns and onions, and being able to flip the different objects at the right time—turned out to be a wildly sophisticated robotic problem, too complicated for the startup to tackle, he said. . . So they decided to move on to a simpler challenge: making a robot that could run a frying station, which Anderson argued was “probably the most stressful and dangerous task in the kitchen” for human workers and therefore a good one. task for a robot, which would not be burned by hot oil or bothered by the heat.

As I watched a giant rubber-coated metal arm pick up the frying basket again and shake it roughly, only one thought occurred to me: The future of sex robots is going to be very unpleasant.

What does AI really do?

It was not clear to me how the restaurant was different from other robot-assisted operations, of which there are now many in California and the United States. So I followed up with Anderson to find out how exactly AI was being used.

He explained that Flippy’s AI components were designed for subtle and difficult tasks, such as adapting to kitchens and stoves of different sizes. He also had computer vision, a type of artificial intelligence that uses machine learning and neural networks to allow computers to act on visual information, such as photos or videos, in the same way that humans respond to sight. Flippy’s computer vision continually monitored where frying baskets were placed, so if a human worker replaced one in a slightly different location, the machine simply adjusted.

The robot wasn’t limited to French fries: It could also fry chicken wings and onion rings, and it could detect when onions, instead of potatoes, had been placed inside the fryer and adjust frying times automatically, he said. The artificial intelligence also informed the robot’s “scheduling and forecasting” capabilities, such as deciding “what’s the right order to cook all this food so that it’s still perfectly cooked” during the lunch rush or slower hours of the week. late.

Flippy, a robot with the ability to cook hamburgers and fries. Photography: Courtesy of Miso Robotics

Flippy was not designed to completely replace human workers, but rather to be a “tool” to make your job easier and safer, Anderson said.

“It’s very much a collaborative setup,” he said, adding that working alongside robots would teach people “new skills” that are “more geared toward career growth, rather than just learning how to cook French fries.”

I asked Anderson what those skills would be, other than knowing how to press buttons.

While Flippy’s interface was designed to be very simple, Anderson said, employees would have to master “how it works, how to clean it, how to keep it running” and how to contact the robotics support line when needed. service or repairs. Flippy couldn’t clean himself: he needed nightly cleanings and more intensive monthly and quarterly cleanings. Human employees could also do “more customer engagement work,” she said. “You don’t have to just stand there and monitor a fryer.”

Flippy-style fryers were already operating at multiple fast-food locations, including White Castle and Jack in the Box, Anderson told me: “We have a fleet of robots out there.”

Testing the results

So after all the hype, how good were robot-made burgers and fries?

The robot burger, despite its higher-quality homemade In-N-Out burger-style sauce and fresh lettuce and tomato, was completely mediocre. The meat was a little rubbery. Flippy’s fries, I admit, were crispy and well browned, not the mushy fries that often emerge at fast food restaurants. I ate them happily, but didn’t crave more.

A still image from the CaliExpress YouTube video. Photography: Youtube

Beef burgers and fries are the only options currently on the menu. One of the only regular customers who came during my visit asked a few questions, but left without placing the order. (He told me he wanted a veggie burger.) Another man walked in while he was talking on his cell phone, looked around him and walked out again.

After leaving CaliExpress, I found myself driving to the nearest McDonald’s, where I ordered another cheeseburger prepared by other humans. It was smaller and the ingredients were clearly cheaper, but I found myself savoring the well-honed flavors of this self-serve classic.

And I had set a timer: it had taken just one minute and 26 seconds for the humans to deliver a fresh burger into my hands. I felt my shoulders relax as I took a bite: until now, humans were still faster than machines.

You may also like