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Robot-run restaurant kitchens prompt questions about man vs. machine

If you entered the newest restaurant in the chain Haidilao in Beijing, you might not feel like you’re stepping into the future. Everything seems typical at first — diners eating while servers mingle among tables, as expected — but behind the scenes, things get a bit more hi-tech.

Haidilao has set up a restaurant with an entirely robot-run kitchen in the Chinese capital, becoming what it calls the “world’s first smart hotpot restaurant.” Hotpot restaurants have diners order a soup stock and ingredients, which they cook at their table using a pot and burner.

One reviewer from the South China Morning Post visited the restaurant and described the experience:

“As you enter the venue, an automated cold room kept at zero to four degrees Celsius [32 to 39 degrees Fahrenheit] is on view, where queues of robotic arms prepare and deliver raw meat and fresh vegetables according to the orders placed by patrons through an iPad at each table.”

According to the reviewer, although human servers do attend to diner’s needs while they eat, no warm-blooded bodies are involved with food prep. A computer system keeps track of expiration dates and automatically disposes of anything that has gone bad. Robotic arms prepare each hotpot soup stock, which customers have already inputted using the iPads back at their tables, while mobile robots deliver food and retrieve dirty dishes.

The fast-growing restaurant chain is committed to keeping humans on staff — its reputation in China is built on its friendly customer service — but might expand its robot kitchen to other restaurants. Currently Haidilao maintains over 350 restaurants around the world (though mostly in China and nearby countries). It partnered with Japanese company Panasonic to bring the robot kitchens to reality.

Haidilao chairman Zhang Yong compares his company’s use of robots to what you might see in the food processing industry. “Haidilao is not just a restaurant,” he said. “We’re also a company that does manufacturing and logistics. Before the food is brought to the table, it’s all a manufacturing process. After that, the service aspect takes over.”

Haidilao isn’t the only company to experiment with robots in the kitchen. These automated restaurants are popping up around the globe. Spyce, in Boston, is one example of a restaurant that uses both robot and human chefs in partnership to feed hungry customers. A concession stand in Los Angeles’s Dodger Stadium recently employed a robot by the name of Flippy, which ran deep fryers using a combination of cameras, heat sensors and artificial intelligence. Levy Restaurants, which operates the stand, said they found that Flippy was more productive and wasted less food than the average human worker.

Still, there are some things human chefs argue that robots can’t replicate, from expertise in flavors to cutting techniques perfected over years of hard work. Some say that robots will function best as tools in the kitchen, like an oven or a microwave. There’s also the matter of keeping jobs open for humans who need them, a discussion at the forefront of many minds as automation sweeps through all industries.

The technology is new, at the end of the day, and it remains to be seen what the pros and cons of robot chefs really are. But until we figure it all out, you can probably expect to see a robot-run kitchen coming your way soon.

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