This past weekend I met up with an old friend, but we could not decide where to eat. Being a foodie and a lover of all things high-tech, she recommended that we eat at Spyce, a restaurant located in Boston’s Downtown Crossing. Spyce serves bowls, starting at $7.50, with Latin, Mediterranean, and Asian influences. Upon arriving, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that I would be eating at the world’s first restaurant with a robotic kitchen.
Spyce began with a hungry MIT student. Michael Farid, a graduate student in MIT’s mechanical engineering program, could no longer get his food at the school’s dining hall. Too busy to cook and tired of paying too much for quick and healthy meals, Farid decided that he would try to build a robot to help prepare his meals. His next step was to involve his friends, and fellow MIT students, Luke Schlueter, Braden Knight, and Kale Rogers. The team built a prototype, a robot that could make a meal at the push of a button, and successfully applied to MIT’s 2015 Global Founders’ Skills Accelerator. Soon after, the Spyce team secured an investment from Michelin star chef Daniel Boulud who then hired Sam Benson, one of his own chefs and a former chef at Chipolte, to be Spyce’s executive chef. The restaurant opened its doors on May 3, 2018.
How Spyce Works
When a customer enters Spyce, they are directed to a touchscreen kiosk by a human guide where they place their order. The order is then sent to the kitchen, and the ingredients are placed into one of the cooking woks. Customers can watch their food being prepared, a detail that is important to Spyce’s founders as they admit that “a cooking robot is a little bit of a weird idea” (view article here). A human employee then finishes off the bowl with the customer’s specified garnishes.
Click here to see a video of Spyce in action
Increasing Popularity of Automated Eating Experiences
Some individuals write Spyce off as a novelty, but it is a startup that should be taken seriously as they just raised a $21 million Series A round of funding led by Collaborative Fund and Maveron (view article here). Spyce is part of the growing trend of automated eating experiences. The following companies, also employing robotic food processing similar to Spyce, have been successful at raising money:
- Cafe X, robotic coffee bars, raised $12 million
- Chowbotics, salad making robot, raised $11 million
- Miso Robotics, burger flipping robot, raised $10 million
- Ekim, pizza making robot, raised $2.6 million
Arguably, the most successful of these automated eating experience companies is Zume Pizza which is rumored to be in talks with Softbank who is considering an investment to the tune of $500-$750 million (view article here). Zume Pizza combines robotics and artificial intelligence to make and deliver their pizzas.
About Zume Pizza
In 2015, Zume Pizza was founded by two friends, Julia Collins and Alex Gardener, who sought to make affordable, high-quality pizza that could be delivered to your door. Customers can order their pizza online or by using Zume’s mobile app. The order is then sent, via a software algorithm, to a pizza-making conveyor belt. The pizza dough is stretched and shaped by the “Doughbot” before it is sent down the line to the sauce dispensers. After that, another robot, “Marta,” distributes the sauce within seconds. An individual then dresses the pie with cheese and toppings as this process has been difficult for Zume to automate. At the end of the conveyor belt, a robot picks up the pizza and places it in the oven. Once the pizza is cooked, a human slices it and puts it into a pizza delivery box. What sets Zume apart from other companies, including Spyce, is its use of artificial intelligence. Zume possesses a large amount of data that allows it to predict what kinds of pizza, along with how much pizza, customers will order at a particular time of day. With this information, Zume can stock up its delivery trucks with greater efficiency and effectiveness.
Robotics vs. Artificial Intelligence
Many individuals, including myself, assume that robotics is part of artificial intelligence. This is incorrect. Most robots are not “smart.” For example, the robots that make the food in Spyce’s and Zume’s kitchen are not intelligent. They simply carry out a repetitive series of movements. Also, they neither understand what they are doing or try to improve upon it. Robots are “programmable machines which carry out a series of actions autonomously or semi-autonomously” (view article here). On the other hand, artificial intelligence is a “branch of computer science that involves developing computer programs to complete tasks which would otherwise require human intelligence” (view article here). The two fields are different but can overlap with artificially intelligent Robots— robots that are powered by AI programs. If by using heat sensors, the Spyce and Zume food preparation robots were trained to recognize when a dish was under or overcooked, or weight sensors to detect when too many ingredients were included, then the robots could be considered artificially intelligent.
The Impact on Our Future
A common critique of robotics and artificial intelligence, is that they take away jobs from humans. However, both Spyce and Zume Pizza stress that their concepts are only successful because of the collaboration between robots and humans. One of Spyce’s cofounders, Luke Schlueter, said about the restaurant, “We’ve designed the robotic kitchen to work in harmony with humans because without humans, our robotic kitchen would not function” (view article here). Similarly, Julia Collins, co-founder of Zume Pizza, has described their kitchen as a “co-bot environment,” meaning that robots and humans are not trying to replace each other but are working together (view article here). James Manyika, Director of McKinsey’s Global Institute, has said that the future of work is going to consist of training individuals to work on robotics and artificial intelligence. He claims to be more concerned about making sure individuals acquire the necessary skills than whether or not there will be enough work for everyone. There is no stopping automation, it has been predicted that by 2030 16% of occupations will be automated, so it seems that our time would be better spent learning how to work with these smart machines than to combat them (view article here).