Robotics have been a reality in corporate America for decades, but can the same robotic arm that helps assemble appliances in a factory build your next burger? And, do you really want your burger built?
David Zito, co-founder and CEO of Miso Robotics, thinks so. The company is the creator of Flippy, a line of robotic, AI-enabled kitchen assistants that does what its name suggests — flip burger patties.
And while this may seem like a rather mundane task, there is more to it than meets the eye — or camera, as the case may be. In a recent interview, David Zito told PYMNTS that Flippy, which was created with input from and works alongside human chefs, relies on, among other technology, artificial intelligence, Intelligence of Things (IoT) connectivity, cameras and sensors to flip burgers — and in the future, he’ll do even more.
“Flippy is really, at its core right now, a hamburger-flipping robot,” Zito said. “Beyond that, though, it’s really an AI-powered kitchen assistant that works collaboratively alongside chefs in commercial kitchens. It works with a chef, so it works on a lot of the predictable and repeatable tasks, so that chefs can focus on the things that matter to them.”
Creating a Kitchen Helper
Zito isn’t a chef, but his idea was born out of a conversation he had with one. While working with some of his co-founders on uses for artificial intelligence in the commercial world, Zito met John Miller, CEO of CaliBurger, an international chain of burger joints.
Zito learned from Miller that the company was struggling with high kitchen staff turnover, with many chefs and assistant cooks leaving the company shortly after being trained. When he heard CaliBurger — and many other restaurants, for that matter — needed consistent, long-term kitchen help, Zito said he immediately imagined the impact smart technology could have in the kitchen.
“When I met [Miller] and listened to what he needed, the sparks really started flying,” Zito said. “He was talking about a real problem he had, and we were really excited about how the technology could make an impact in multiple industries, but this one seemed like a really good fit.”
Inspired by the interaction with CaliBurger, Zito and his team got to work crafting a robot that could help make kitchens more productive. Miso Robotics worked with Miller and other chefs to determine what they needed help with most and found there was a market for automating the time-consuming manual labor required for restaurant cooking.
Learning on the Job
So, the company started designing a robot that could perform one of the more ubiquitous tasks in a commercial kitchen — flipping patties on the grill. But while it’s a simple task for most chefs or line cooks in almost any restaurant’s kitchen, it wasn’t the case for robots. Designing a robot that could work in the ever-changing conditions of a kitchen meant giving the robot the ability to see, which was accomplished through a combination of sensors and cameras.
The robot also needed to be able to learn and gain intelligence to adapt to the fast-paced — and sometimes high-stakes — atmosphere of a commercial kitchen. That took designing a “narrow” AI system, Zito said, which could use IoT connectivity to learn how to perfect tasks and acquire new skills.
The company focused its efforts on designing that AI system, partnering with robotic arm manufacturers for the machine’s hardware while also trying to perfect the Intelligence of Things connectivity, automated learning and other smart technology software.
“Every time Flippy makes a mistake, it gets flagged and saved — or, if it does something faster or more efficiently than it did before, that gets flagged and saved, and both of those things can be used to improve the AI,” Zito said. “The beauty of this design is that if any robot has a moment that is either positive or negative, the learning process for that robot is a learning process for every Flippy robot, because the robots can connect to each other and view those flagged events.”
PYMNTS wanted to ask if one of these teachable moments could potentially involve Flippy choosing the same music for kitchen staff to work to one too many times — like, say, “Frampton Comes Alive!” — but the opportunity slipped by, like a highway exit with the promise of a burger stop.
A Collaborative Effort
Rather than replace chefs entirely, the company decided to create a robot that could work alongside kitchen employees. Zito said he was surprised to learn chefs and other food service workers were eager to embrace intelligent technology in their work environment.
“When we sat down and started talking to chefs and started talking to cooks and talking to our customers, they all said, ‘What’s taken you guys so long?’” Zito said. “We saw a great opportunity to kind of take this new technology, adapt it and bring this to an oft-overlooked class of worker to make them more productive and leave them free to focus on that artistry of cooking.”
To that end, Zito said he believes the idea of automation replacing human workers may be exciting, but misguided. Rather, he imagines robotics, AI and Internet of Things technology developing as tools that humans — in jobs and at home — will use to make their lives easier and more efficient.
“I put my hat in the collaborative camp,” he said. “We tend to ascribe some personification when we call it a ‘robot’ but, if we think of it as collaborative, then it’s really just what AI has always been for us, and that’s augmentations and assistance for what we’re trying to achieve. Technology is really something that multiplies our efforts rather than [replaces] them.”
Further than Food?
For now, Miso Robotics is focused on bringing the robot fully to market (currently, its only client is CaliBurger) and making Flippy into the best burger flipper it can be. Zito noted, however, that the AI and Internet of Things aspects of the robot mean it is adaptable and capable of learning tasks.
That could include kitchen work like slicing potatoes or onions, but Zito isn’t limiting his vision to food service exclusively. He said he also hopes to dispatch the smart technology in other commercial environments, which he thinks is entirely possible due, in large part, to that same adaptability.
And, by this reasoning, a robot building your burger could be just the beginning — after all, even the largest companies in the world typically start small, Zito pointed out. He then gave an example of a well-known company and compared Flippy to its early endeavors.
“The entrepreneur in me would be remiss if I didn’t say that Amazon started with books. So, I certainly think that down the road the technology we’re using to solve these problems could be broadly applicable,” said Zito.
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