In San Francisco, robotic baristas are serving coffee ordered through a smartphone app, while in Singapore, are filling the restaurant workforce gap. With more and more automation and digital interaction in the food industry, it’s possible to imagine a restaurant 50 years from now that is run entirely without human intervention, where robots make and serve meals with machine-level precision, and each diner’s preferences are predicted based on social sharing (and might even be designed to spark jealousy when they appear later on social feeds). However, it’s probable that the most radical advancements will take place behind the scenes, leaving the technological spectacles to be discovered by those who seek them out.
From Industrial Canning to Burger-Flipping Robots
Rebecca Chesney, research director of in California, thinks that by looking to the past 50 years, we can better predict the greatest changes coming in the next few decades. “Industrialization really transformed our food system. The ability to can foods to make them shelf-stable, and the cold supply chain — those things all drastically transformed how we eat,” she said. “And so I think in the longer term where we’re likely to see impacts of automation and robotics is going to be more in the logistics and the distribution of food, maybe the formulations of food.”
In fact, automation is already embedded in the restaurant industry today, particularly in fast-casual establishments: one national chain usesfor ordering, and another was first launched in the dining hall of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Chesney recalled how when she worked at a large chain coffee shop, the plastic cups had lines showing exactly how far to fill them with ice, milk, and pumps of flavor. “There are already a lot of these cues that have been designed into some of these processes,” she said. “One thing that we’re likely to see [in the future] is, in places like that where they are optimizing for efficiency and speed, there might be some level of automation and robotics.”
These innovations will have to take into consideration the existing environment of different restaurants and their needs. A burger-flipping robot named (appropriately) Flippy was retired after regularly breaking down and being unable to carry soup without sloshing it. Other areas have been more successful, like the introduction of app-ordering for fast food, and even , which one chain began offering in 2016. While these new methods often target consumers, a major issue will be redefining the role of restaurant workers and figuring out how their jobs will survive and evolve. A estimated that by 2030, between 400 and 800 million jobs could be eliminated due to artificial intelligence (AI) and robotics.a fast-food joint in Pasedena because Flippy’s human coworkers couldn’t keep up with the rate of its burger production, meaning that the addition in automation would have required more human employees to facilitate. And back in 2016, the robotic waiters at two restaurants in Guangzhou, China,
Personalized Automation and the Smartest Tables
“The fast casual and fast food market will have to get to automation,” affirmed Jeremy Julian, who co-hosts the podcast with Ryan Williams. The duo recently all about the future, which covered everything from being able to ask for your check with voice-recognition AI to conversing with a restaurant bot about order recommendations. “Clients ordering for themselves with their own mobile device or a kiosk — there is very little value in having someone at a counter take an order,” Julian added. “Most customers will want to have their own control of the experience.”
For even greater consumer control, smart tables are being introduced that can turn into a huge iPad for ordering or playing games on — the 21st-century version of crayons and butcher’s paper. Atin London, customers can use interactive projections on their tables to watch a live-cam of the chef or sketch digital “graffiti” on its surface.
Sensory-Oriented Fine Dining
Nevertheless, in fine dining, people may continue to want human interaction as part of the experience, even as, behind the scenes, things get more and more automated. “On the kitchen side, I do expect that technology and automation will increase,” Julian said. “I expect the manager’s purchasing decisions get driven from data. The cooking process will be more automated in all avenues — fine dining, casual dining, and fast food. The continued innovation on that side will grow, [as will] better cooking methods and food safety methodologies.”
For adventurous souls, there are already many options for experimental dining utilizing new technology, many of which are even more sensory-oriented than the Robot Restaurant in Tokyo, which does gangbusters with its “Bot Cabaret.” One of these is Shanghai’s Ultraviolet, which offers communal fine dining with each dish complemented by four walls of video projections, dispersed scents, and a meticulously curated playlist. In an article for the Telegraph, John O’Ceallaigh described eating oysters and caviar there to the sounds of seagulls and the smell of the salty ocean, and detecting fresh-cut grass and birdsongs while sampling a picnic-style spread of fish and rice. Artists have pushed these possibilities further, such as the installation GhostFood by Miriam Simun and Miriam Songster, which involves wearable devices issuing synthetic smells right into the nostrils to simulate the taste of food that could be lost to climate change. Meanwhile, Project Nourished is exploring virtual reality and 3-D-printed food to create just the sensation of eating, which could be a potential aid for weight loss, allergy management, and even remote dining for astronauts.