Advances in artificial intelligence are coming to your freezer, in the form of robot-assembled prepared meals. 

Chef Robotics, a San Francisco–based startup, has launched a system of AI-powered robotic arms that can be quickly programmed with a recipe to dole out accurate portions of everything from tikka masala to pesto tortellini. After experiments with leading brands, including Amy’s Kitchen, the company says its robots have proved their worth and are being rolled out at scale to more production facilities. They are also being offered to new customers in the US and Canada. 

You might think the meals that end up in the grocery store’s frozen aisle, at Starbucks, or on airplanes are robot-packed already, but that’s rarely the case. Workers are often much more flexible than robots and can handle production lines that frequently rotate recipes. Not only that, but certain ingredients, like rice or shredded cheese, are hard to portion out with robotic arms. That means the vast majority of meals from recognizable brands are still typically hand-packed. 

However, advancements from AI have changed the calculus, making robots more useful on production lines, says David Griego, senior director of engineering at Amy’s.

“Before Silicon Valley got involved, the industry was much more about ‘Okay, we’re gonna program—a robot is gonna do this and do this only,’” he says. For a brand with so many different meals, that wasn’t very helpful. But the robots Griego is now able to add to the production line can learn how scooping a portion of peas is different from scooping cauliflower, and they can improve their accuracy for next time. “It’s astounding just how they can adapt to all the different types of ingredients that we use,” he says. Meal-packing robots suddenly make much more financial sense. 

Rather than selling the machines outright, Chef uses a service model, where customers pay a yearly fee that covers maintenance and training. Amy’s currently uses eight systems (each with two robotic arms) spread across two of its plants. Each of those systems costs around $85,000 per year to use, Griego says, but one system can now do the work of two to four workers, depending on which ingredients are being packed. The robots also reduce waste, since they can pack more consistent portions than their human counterparts. 

With these advantages in mind, Griego imagines the robots handling more and more of the meal assembly process. “I have a vision,” he says, “where the only thing people would do is run the systems.” They’d make sure the hoppers of ingredients and packaging materials were full, for example, and the robots would do the rest. 

Robot chefs have been getting more skilled in recent years thanks to AI, and some companies have promised that burger-flipping and nugget-frying robots can provide cost savings to restaurants. But much of this technology has seen little adoption in the restaurant industry so far, says Chef’s CEO, Rajat Bhageria. That’s because fast-casual restaurants often only need one cook running the grill, and if a robot cannot fully replace that person because it still needs supervision, it makes little sense to use it. Packaged meal companies, however, have a larger source of labor costs that they want to bring down: plating and assembly.

“That’s going to be the highest bang for our buck for our customers,” Bhageria says. 

CHEF

The notion that more flexible robots could mean broader adoption in new industries is no surprise, says Lerrel Pinto, who leads the General-Purpose Robotics and AI Lab at New York University and is not involved with Chef or Amy’s Kitchen. 

“A lot of robots deployed in the real world are used in a very repetitive way, where they’re supposed to do the same thing over and over again,” he says. Deep learning has caused a paradigm shift over the past few years, sparking the idea that more generally capable robots might be not only possible but necessary for more widespread adoption. If Chef’s robots can perform without frequent stops for repair or training, they could deliver material savings to food companies and shift how they use human labor, Pinto says: “In the next few years, we will probably see a lot more companies trying to actually deploy these types of learning-based robots in the real world.”

One new challenge the robots have created for Amy’s, Griego says, is maintaining the look of a hand-packed meal when it was assembled by a robot. The company’s cheese enchilada dish in particular was causing trouble: it’s finished with a hand-distributed sprinkling of cheddar on top, but Amy’s panel of examiners said the cheese on the robot-packed dish looked too machine-spread, sending Griego back to the drawing board.

“The first few tests went pretty well,” he says. After a couple of changes, the robots are ready to take over. Amy’s plans to bring them to more of its facilities and train them on a growing list of ingredients, meaning your frozen meals are increasingly likely to be packed by a robot.

​ Artificial intelligence – MIT Technology Review

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