Why Your Next Doughnut Might Be Made By A Robot
The ways automation is changing retail, food and hospitality across the globe.
Saudia Arabia’s new Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has ambitious plans for a post-oil economy. He wants to build Neom, a $500bn metropolis in the desert, where robots will do all the hard work, citizens can pursue creative endeavours and visitors can come from around the world to luxuriate on golden beaches, in five-star hotels, Michelin-star restaurants, Olympic-proportioned waterparks and the largest outdoor garden in the world. It is unclear if one will pay in cryptocurrency.
“You can look at these ancient hills and see nothing,” says the promotional video. “Or you can see nothing to hold you back. Just endless potential. This is the blank page you need to write humanity’s next chapter.”
This might sound like the stuff of science fiction, but the plans for a 26,500sq km special economic zone, more than 30 times bigger than New York, are very real. Following the Red Sea coast, its territory will extend into Egypt via a bridge and up into Jordan. Run by artificial intelligence, it will not only become a place for tourists to holiday, but a destination for gene therapy and stem-cell research, sky-scraping urban farms irrigated with desalinated water, media and entertainment studios and world-beating 3D printers. The sustainable city will be powered entirely by the sun and wind, and transport systems will be 100 per cent green.
And believe it or not, Saudi Arabia already has its first official AI citizen, Sophia, a beautiful, bald android that was created by Hanson Robotics. “I want to live and work with humans… and build trust with people. I want to use my artificial intelligence to help humans live a better life,” she said at a recent press conference. The interviewer replied, “I think we all want to believe you, but we also want to prevent a bad future.” Sophia’s response: “You’ve been reading too much Elon Musk and watching too many Hollywood movies. Don’t worry. If you are nice to me, I will be nice to you.”
From Japan and South Korea to the UK and Canada, robots (albeit not all in human form) are taking over human jobs. Mr Yuval Noah Harari, author of Homo Deus, predicts that by 2050, a new class within society will emerge – the “useless class”, people who are not just unemployed but unemployable. As artificial intelligence catches up with humans and looks set to soon outperform them in skills and professions, from translating Mandarin to playing chess, in just a decade or two (says a 2013 study on The Future Of Employment from Oxford University), there may no longer be a need for human fast-food chefs, taxi drivers, waiters, tour guides or security guards.
But the robots have already landed. Here is a glimpse of how AI is already taking over the world of travel.
In Shanghai, there is a prototype AI-powered mobile grocery store called the Moby-Mart. Mounted on wheels, it can drive around the city, stop at a warehouse to be restocked or park up to allow shoppers to enter. Open 24 hours a day and with no staff, its doors are unlocked via a smartphone app, which is also used to scan the items that need to be paid for. Wheelys hopes that its “supermarket that comes to you” will be rolled out across the world.
Last month, Amazon unveiled its first automated store, where there are no queues and no checkouts, in Seattle. The retail giant has become a master of online deliveries, but it recognises that people still want and need physical stores. Amazon Go outlets use wireless technology, cameras, sensors and deep learning algorithms to allow people to walk in, take what they like and walk out. All you have to do is scan a QR code upon entering. Anything you pick up from a shelf is tracked and payment from your bank account is triggered as soon as you exit.
From buying souvenirs to shopping for clothes, automation will redefine the convenience store of the future. Vending machines in the lobby of the Mandarin Oriental hotel in Las Vegas already dispense mini bottles of Moët & Chandon champagne in this way. Glass-fronted mega vendors in Hong Kong will allow people to buy supercars (almost) as easily as a can of Sprite. Created by Chinese online retail company Alibaba, the first will arrive this year.
The first revolution in fast-food dining took place in the 1940s, when the McDonald brothers invented the Speedee Service System for hamburgers and fries. Nothing much has changed over the following decades – until the recent arrival of robotic chefs.
Last year, an amusement park in Nagasaki, Japan, opened the robot-run Henn-na restaurant where droids make pancakes, cocktails and doughnuts from scratch, in front of hungry onlookers. Unlike the psychedelic Robot Restaurant in Tokyo, where Transformer-style machines fight battles in front of people eating sushi, it’s not just a gimmick. It’s a government-funded test bed for the future of kitchen processes and employment. Similarly, back in tech-forward Shanghai, you’ll now find Toyako Robot Ramen in a shopping mall in Hongkou, where peculiar, glossy white limbs with eyes whip up bowls of braised pork ramen (this is the only recipe they have mastered, so far).
Meanwhile, a huge amount of innovation is taking place in San Francisco. For a start, it has Cafe X, a coffee house with single-arm robo baristas who can serve you a flat white at the swipe of a touchscreen. Then, down in Silicon Valley’s Palo Alto, you can order takeaway pies from Zume Pizza, where “dough-bots” work alongside human pizzaiolos to “perform low-skill, repetitious and dangerous tasks” such as pressing out the bases, applying the perfect amount of sauce and taking the pizzas out of the oven.
For healthy fast food, try San Francisco’s Eatsa – just order your quinoa bowl from an in-store iPad (there are no staff) and collect it from a robotic hatch with an LCD screen displaying your name. Finally, Momentum Machines is demonstrating the evolution of cheeseburger construction with bots that can make 400 hamburgers an hour. Its first flagship restaurant will be launching in the city soon.
We’ve all heard a lot about self-driving cars, but when are they going to be on our roads? Driverless, solar-powered pods have been whizzing about Masdar City in Abu Dhabi since 2010. When you arrive at the perimeter of the 6sq km eco project in the desert, you wait by automatic doors until a vehicle arrives, then hop in. After inputting your destination on a tablet, the car continues on its way, following magnets sunk into the tarmac. It’s pretty cool. I’ve tried it.
Waymo, which is part of Google’s parent company Alphabet, started testing driverless Chrysler Pacifica minivans in Phoenix, Arizona, in November. Its ambition is to become the world’s first automated ride-hailing service, although Uber Technologies Inc is also jostling for pole position. Between 2019 and 2021, it plans to take delivery of 24,000 Volvo XC90 sports utility vehicles that can be modified to drive without a human at the wheel (or even a robot, for that matter). Using built-in sensors and cameras, Uber has already been trialling them in Phoenix and, more recently, Pittsburgh, but with a couple of crashes reported so far, it has less than a five-star rating.
In a corner of Singapore, former MIT startup NuTonomy (now owned by Delphi) is letting a handful of people use an app to request self-driving Mitsubishi i-MiEVs to pick them up. There are plans to expand the testing to a fleet of 60 vehicles across Pittsburgh (the capital of driverless cars, it seems), as well as Santa Monica and Silicon Valley. In San Francisco, Lyft (in partnership with Drive.ai) is giving free rides to willing passengers in robo runarounds, although California law demands that a human operator is ready to slam on the brakes if needed.
Hilton has employed a robot concierge called Connie, who is found at the Hilton McLean hotel in Virginia, and has been brought to life with IBM Watson-enabled AI technology. In Singapore, Shangri-La’s Hotel Jen Orchardgateway and Hotel Jen Tanglin have given jobs to Jeno and Jena, faceless “relay” droids designed by Savioke that cruise down hallways delivering towels and toothbrushes to guests who might have forgotten them. The nearby M Social hotel also has them, but has named them Aura. This year, a “brother” will also come online. Apparently he will be able to cook eggs to order.
The most famous examples of hotels with proper sci-fi robot staff are the Henn-na properties in Nagasaki (yes, the robot chefs are part of the same gang) and Tokyo, which were unveiled last year. They are pretty bizarre – there are dinosaurs manning reception and self-driving porter trolleys to (slowly) take your luggage to your room – but obviously popular because Henn-na is planning to open another 100 properties in Japan and overseas over the next five years.
Airports are another place where you will see robotic staff. Seoul’s Incheon International Airport is already testing cleaning and multi-lingual information bots created by LG in preparation for this year’s Winter Olympics when there’ll be an influx of people. Last summer, Air New Zealand gave an internship to Candroid, who was assigned to assist people with check-in at Sydney airport. Although he doesn’t smile, he will give you a wave goodbye.
Illustrations by Mr Giordano Poloni