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Burger Flipping Robot Brings Cobots to the Kitchen

Robots have been proving themselves everywhere from the assembly line to outer space, yet one important job remained beyond their mechanical grasp until last week.

On March 7, 2017 a robot named Flippy took up its post in front of the grill at a fast-food eatery in Pasadena, California and began doing the important, and previously human-only work of grilling delicious burgers.

The story has been widely covered, owing both to the novelty of a sophisticated machine flipping burgers and to concern over the looming prospect of job losses in the fast food industry as robots displace human workers.

Developed by Miso Robotics and deployed at the Pasadena location of the CaliBurger chain, Flippy boasts the ability to grill a perfect burger every time. Cameras, sensors and software enable Flippy to perform its task to perfection, grilling burgers and placing each fully-cooked patty on a bun.

And while the cooking part is impressive, this is where Flippy becomes even more interesting. After working its magic at the grill and placing burger on bun, Flippy turns back to its flat-top while a human chef takes over. Working in close proximity to the robot, a human worker is employed to finish up with the toppings and the top piece of the bun, work to which a human is better suited.

Flippy is not just a pioneer in the kitchen, he is one of the many new co-bots set to change the way we work with robots. These bots, engineered to be safe and easy for their human co-workers to operate, pose an interesting question about the future of work and the future of mechanization.

In the case of Flippy, the human worker who is being displaced is one who doesn’t particularly want the job anyway. The purpose of developing robots to work in commercial kitchens alongside people is in part to help restaurants deal with a significant turnover problem. A statistic from the National Association of Restaurants quoted by Miso Robotics in their press release heralding the dawn of burger bot era, staff turnover in the restaurant industry hit 113% in 2016.

“The application of artificial intelligence to robotic systems that work next to our employees in CaliBurger restaurants will allow us to make food faster, safer and with fewer errors,” said John Miller, Chairman of Cali Group. “Our investment in Miso Robotics is part of our broader vision for creating a unified operating system that will control all aspects of a restaurant from in-store interactive gaming entertainment to automated ordering and cooking processes, ‘intelligent’ food delivery and real-time detection of operating errors and pathogens.”

The restaurant chain says its aim will be to redeploy some staff roles that involve customer contact while others are trained to work with the robots.

“Much like self-driving vehicles, our system continuously learns from its experiences to improve over time,” said David Zito, CEO of Miso Robotics. “Though we are starting with the relatively ‘simple’ task of cooking burgers, our proprietary AI software allows our kitchen assistants to be adaptable and therefore can be trained to help with almost any dull, dirty or dangerous task in a commercial kitchen — whether it’s frying chicken, cutting vegetables or final plating.”

Cobots are revolutionizing the way humans work with robots, enabling businesses to run more efficiently while still providing meaningful jobs for the people who work alongside them. If you are not already, you may soon find yourself working alongside one of Flippy’s relatives.

If you would like to learn more about cobots and their impact on the workplace, check out this interesting post at IEEE Spectrum