The ultimate kitchen gadget could well be the chef

A study claims 87 per cent of the roles carried out by fast-food workers can be done by machines.
A study claims 87 per cent of the roles carried out by fast-food workers can be done by machines. Photo: iStock

At a traditional English cafe in the leafy Surrey village of Cobham, furnished with plush chairs and a piano, customers are being served by a robot named Theresa.

"This is one staff member who we know will never call in sick, will never complain, never request a holiday and always show up to work on time," says Ehab Shouly, the Tea Terrace's managing director.

Theresa may be a stunt designed to lure in customers, but restaurants around the world are investing in robots to replace human workers.

Food service workers are among the most at risk of losing their jobs to robots, a recent report says.
Food service workers are among the most at risk of losing their jobs to robots, a recent report says. Photo: iStock

Supporters believe robots can cut costs in the long term by being faster, reliable and more efficient.

It is just one example of the way in which new technologies - from artificial intelligence to delivery by drone - are set to transform the experience of fast-food dining.

Around 77 per cent of the tasks carried out by waiters and waitresses can be automated, according to a study by the Centre for an Urban Future in New York.

'I would say there's no difference between the [laksa] created by the robot and human.'

Paul Yong, diner

When food preparation is added in, the study claims 87 per cent of the roles carried out by fast-food workers can be done by machines.

There are plenty of examples. French start-up Ekim, for instance, wants to speed up the way pizza is made using a pizzaiolo robot. The three-armed autonomous device is capable of creating a pizza every 30 seconds.

Meanwhile, food delivery firm Ocado recently led a £7 million ($12.3 million) investment in Karakuri, a London-based start-up which makes robot chefs capable of mixing cocktails and ice-cream.


In the US, Miso Robotics has installed a robot named Flippy at CaliBurger in Pasadena to flip patties. And in Singapore, Orange Clove has helped create a robot sous-chef, named Sophie, which can serve up a piping-hot bowl of laksa in just 45 seconds.

"It's excellent, I would say there's no difference between the one created by the robot and human," said Paul Yong, a guest at last week's launch.

Food service workers are among the most at risk of losing their jobs to robots, according to a report from the Brookings Institution. It said 36 million Americans hold jobs with high exposure to automation - meaning 70 per cent of their tasks could be replaced by machines using existing technology. Cooks, waiters and other food service staff were named alongside short-haul truck drivers and clerical office workers.

The trend towards automation may conflict with consumer concerns about food provenance.
The trend towards automation may conflict with consumer concerns about food provenance. Photo: iStock

It is easy to imagine robots forming the backbone of a mostly automated fast-food supply chain. But it's not just robots that are poised to upend the fast-food experience. Industry giants are also using AI to pinpoint exactly what a customer wants before they even realise it.

KFC has been trialling facial recognition technology alongside Chinese search engine Baidu to predict what a customer will order based on age and mood.

In March, McDonald's forked out $US300 million ($435.4 million) for AI start-up Dynamic Yield to help design "AI menus" able to make smart food suggestions to drive-through customers based on the weather and time of the day.

These firms want to make fast-food even faster, while using data to influence their customers. In the competitive age of food delivery, now a £4 billion industry in Britain, technology such as this could give them the edge.

But what might change first is the way in which we receive fast food.

Delivery drones are being developed by companies such as Uber, which is planning to send food to customers by air in San Diego this summer.

A self-driving robot being developed by Ford in the US uses a machine, developed by an Oregon start-up, that walks on two legs. It folds itself out of the boot of a car and can avoid front garden booby traps such as abandoned toys on its way to the front door (though it isn't yet able to identify a letterbox). The idea is that it uses the accompanying car's self-driving sensors to detect obstacles.

Of course, there remains the problem of the final hundred metres.

Customers don't like to leave the comfort of their homes to walk to a grounded drone to collect their dinner, a quandary for firms eager to cut staff numbers.

And what of the food itself? San Francisco, centre of the tech industry, is experiencing a fake meat boom. There is barely a fast food bar that doesn't have a Beyond Meat or Impossible Burger on the menu, and it is believed that the fake meat industry could be worth $140 billion within the next decade.

Plant-based substitutes can be found in salads and wraps, and California-based Impossible says it now plans to produce a synthetic steak, a tricky scientific challenge.

Food industry juggernauts including Nestle and US meat giant Tyson Foods are expected to enter the plant-based meat market this year.

They have to overcome the "ick factor" - the knee-jerk objection some consumers have upon learning that their dinner, which looks, smells and tastes like beef, is made from plant protein. Lab-grown burgers may be a solution, but there are problems. Creating meat in a lab requires animal cells from foetal bovine serum (FBS), drawn from the foetuses of cows.

Some restaurant chains, most notably McDonald's, are also turning up their noses, arguing that the existing meat alternatives are too processed, and that they need to see evidence of greater demand.

To those positive about the sector, all of this only serves to suggest that popularity of these plant-based meat alternatives is here to stay, and that it's no longer just for vegetarians.

"We believe our momentum demonstrates the mainstream consumer's increasing appetite for our plant-based meats," said Beyond Meat chief executive Ethan Brown on the company's second-quarter earnings call, citing figures from analysts NPD Group showing that 95 per cent of restaurant diners ordering plant-based burgers also eat beef burgers.

Meanwhile, social attitudes towards food are also changing. "People are trending towards the idea that food is no longer just a necessity that we eat to survive, but part of caring for ourselves," says Annie Cheng, head of the food travel company The Table Less Travelled.

"As opposed to the tech side of 'how do we make it more efficient?', it's a regression to 'how do we make it more authentic?'"

She argues that people in the West are increasingly concerned about the origins of their food and the ways it has been processed. That might seem to conflict with a world of rapid, highly-automated food preparation and delivery.

On the other hand, these technologies might make it easier and more affordable for consumers to access high-quality ingredients for their own cooking.

And so, come 2040, people may be used to instructing their AI personal assistant to pick something they will like, and have it chopped and cooked in a robot kitchen. Or they will accept delivery from a drone launched from the back of an autonomous vehicle, tucking in to a meatless meat rogan josh.

If people do go out, they might order their meal in advance from an app and pick it up from a hole in the wall, linked to an almost entirely automated dark kitchen.

In such a world, given how automation could crash the cost of producing food below the levels necessary to sustain decent salaries, human cooking could become an expensive luxury or an eccentric home hobby - primarily done by those with time or money to spare.

The Telegraph, London