When robots inevitably take over our planet, as the dystopian vision of science fiction writers foretells, we'll lose our jobs, our freedom, our humanity. But take comfort in one thing the robots will provide for us lowly carbon-based life-forms: artisanal pizza.

They're already making it in a commercial kitchen in the heart of Silicon Valley: Two robots named Pepe and Giorgio squirt sauce on dough, and another robot, Marta, spreads it. A robotic arm named Bruno puts the pizza in the oven. They don't operate independently from humans yet - two or three people still load the dough onto the conveyor and sprinkle cheese and toppings - but Zume Pizza in Mountain View expects to be fully automated by spring, delivering made-to-order, customizable pizzas in as little as seven minutes.

Say it with a straight face: artisanal robotic pizza. Like jumbo shrimp and boneless ribs, it seems like a culinary oxymoron. For many years, our culture has fostered a movement that rewards people who grow and prepare food with thoughtfulness, by hand. We're all about knowing your farmer, shopping small and local, and caring about the human stories behind the food we eat.

In seemingly direct contrast to that stands technology. Some of the same purveyors who are part of that movement are looking for ways to maximize efficiency and cut costs as their businesses grow.

"There's a connotation with 'artisan' that speaks to an artist behind it," said Sarah Weiner, director of the Good Food Foundation. "I am not sure that robots have evolved to the point where they can convey emotion and meaning."

Maybe not, but there are now robots that can reflect and simulate emotions. And technology is moving quickly: Engineers are developing robots to automate single tasks, but experts predict that eventually, artificial intelligence could become as common a kitchen tool as a whisk.

"It's easy to take two things that seem completely at odds with each other and assume that there's a tension," said Zume Pizza co-founder and co-chief executive Julia Collins. "That doesn't exist in this case. Robots are enabling us to deliver artisanal food."

'Not too perfectly'

How can something made by the steely mechanical hand of a robot be considered artisanal? It further stretches the definition of a word that is already in danger of becoming little more than marketing-speak, for sure. But Collins and others in the field assert that if the base ingredients, processes and technique come from artisanal origins, the food itself can be considered artisanal.

"Food has to be made with love," said Collins. "That's why humans make the food, and when I say 'make the food,' humans do all of the scratch cooking" at Zume. That means making the dough, which is aged for up to 24 hours, and the sauce, which Collins said comes from "single-source organic dry-farmed tomatoes" and is made using executive chef Aaron Butkus's grandmother's recipe. Humans also must chop and prep the toppings, which are all locally sourced and use seasonal produce. Robots assemble and cook the pies; at peak capacity, they can make 288 every hour.

Apparently, we don't want our food to look like it's made by robots. Zume has taken particular care to ensure that: The machine they are commissioning to press the dough will create three slightly different shapes. Because the tomatoes are hand-crushed, the consistency of the sauce changes, so Marta the robot spreads it differently with every pie - "perfectly but not too perfectly," said Collins. And the menu is constantly changing.

"If I see too much homogeneity, I know that something is wrong with our creative process," said Collins.

They don't hide the fact that the pizzas are made by robots, but they don't promote it on their website, either. Given the company's location in a community full of programmers and engineers, it's part of the appeal.

The automation doesn't stop in the kitchen: The delivery-only pizza joint has special patented food trucks that bake your pizza en route, in an oven that turns on automatically 31/2 minutes before the truck delivers it to your house after following an algorithmically optimized route. It eliminates dwell time, which is pizza-biz lingo for "that horrible time when it's in a cardboard box in the back of a Camry," said Collins. She foresees a fleet of cook-en-route delivery vehicles serving people across the country, and not just bringing pizza. Zume can have the food at your door minutes after you place the order, by front-loading the truck with the most popular pizzas and circling neighborhoods on busy nights.

Pizza isn't the only food that's getting a robotic boost. Momentum Machines announced plans to open a robot-operated burger joint in San Francisco, with systems that will allow diners to customize their blend of ground meat. There are robot noodlemakers in Japan and robot cocktailmakers in Italy. Casabots in San Jose has invented Sally, the salad robot - she's essentially a fully contained, mechanized Sweetgreen - and they're setting their sights next on burritos. Even the San Francisco Mission District's artisanal darling Tartine has discussed automating its bread baking.

Technology yet to come could further blur the artisan-robot divide. There are already robots that can quantify taste. One was created in Thailand in 2014 to combat the adulteration of flavors in Thai food and to set standards for the taste of classic dishes. And an engineering Ph.D student at Berkeley has been exploring the use of virtual reality to teach robots human motions. A human wearing a VR headset could demonstrate culinary tasks, such as knife use or deboning a duck, that the robot could emulate. Eventually, those robots could be able to prepare entire meals in the style of their teachers.

"This is kind of an absurd image, but equip a grandmother with a system that would record every motion that she makes when preparing a dish," said Sarah Smith, research and design manager at the Institute for the Future. "Then you could basically upload that to a robotic system to reproduce later."

Your grandma could cook for you, even if you live continents apart. To take it a step further, put the VR system on a celebrity chef like Thomas Keller or René Redzepi, and you could program a French Laundry- or Noma-style meal. And when scientists are able to further customize indoor agriculture, could chefs in one part of the world replicate the terroir of another? If so, Smith posits that a dinner in Kansas City could taste even more like a night at Noma in Copenhagen.

The job-takeover issue

Skeptics have historical precedent to be wary.

"Part of the reason that we have kind of a knee-jerk negative reaction to technology and food is that the primary applications of technology around food for the past many, many decades have been about increasing crop yields, standardization, efficiency, profit," said Ben Hamamoto, research manager at the Institute for the Future.

And, of course, there's the impact on the labor market. Major chains such as Pizza Hut and Carl's Jr. have pondered robotic labor, partly as a way to avoid paying an increased minimum wage.

Depending on what sources you look at, the predictions for robotic job takeover are either negligible or apocalyptic. The truth will probably fall somewhere in between.

"Blaming robots for messing up the minimum wage of restaurant workers is not true. There's already a big problem with minimum wage in the restaurant world," said Smith. "Across all industries right now, we're in this moment of needing to reevaluate some of those social contracts."

Mark Erickson, provost at the Culinary Institute of America, said he isn't worried about preparing students for a career working alongside robots. He pointed to data that indicate a labor shortage in kitchens (though some economists disagree that it exists).

"The industry is basically screaming that they can't find cooks," said Erickson.

Robot labor could eliminate low-skilled jobs and lead to the creation of more technical jobs, such as robot maintenance. Zume, for example, gives all of its employees a stake in the company and technical training. Collins said workers whose jobs become automated will be reassigned, not eliminated. And Zume's kitchen will always require someone to prep and load food into the robots.

"Eventually, enough jobs will be created, but there isn't sufficient social safety nets or other mechanisms in place to get us from now to when it works itself out," said Hamamoto.

But the broader societal implications of their meal are probably not on the minds of the tech-savvy diners who want to eat robot food. They're probably thinking about how robots are awesome.

At Casabots, the robotic-saladmaker company, "we actually see millennials prefer to get it from a robot," said Deepak Sekar, founder and chief executive. The company uses people's fascination with robots to its advantage.

"We find a lot of people want to see how the food is dispensed," said Sekar, whose robot has a window in front so customers can see ingredients being dropped into their bowls. "Some of our customers call it 'eatertainment.' We've done trials in restaurants, and people keep taking photos of Sally."

Guests can customize salads via a touch screen, and the robot will dispense them according to weight, with a precise calorie count. Sekar is also in the process of signing up a celebrity chef to come up with specialized salads. The robot is being tested at Stanford University, among other pilot customers in the restaurant and hotel industry. Because initial models are designed to replace unstaffed salad bars at cafeterias, Sekar does not anticipate that Sally will take anyone's job.

The District of Columbia will get a taste of the Bay Area's high-tech dining with the opening of an Eatsa location at 1627 K St. NW this fall. The vegetarian restaurant specializing in quinoa bowls is a modern take on the early-20th-century trend of Automats, which were, essentially, room-size vending machines. It's perfect for people who like to get their food without having to interact with another human: You place your order on a touch screen and wait for it to show up in a computerized cubby with your name on it. It's sleek, sterile and full of flashing screens, kind of like an Apple store that sells mushroom teriyaki bowls instead of iPhones. The lone front-of-house employee seems to be responsible mostly for taking out the trash.

Though it has earned the nickname "robot restaurant" in the Bay Area, Eatsa is not fully automated, but it has announced that it intends to move in that direction. Eatsa's publicists were unable to answer questions about how the company uses automation, but job postings for prep cooks make reference to a "scratch" kitchen, meaning people are making at least some of the food.

A division of labor

A future restaurant kitchen may look a lot like Zume's, with people working alongside robots. Robotics research also shows "what humans are uniquely good at," said Hamamoto.

We're good at customer service, so those jobs will stay human. And we're good at creativity, like recipe creation, though Hamamoto said there have been surprising developments by robots in that field. But experiments such as IBM's Chef Watson prove that there's still a long way to go before a robot can conceptualize a dish.

One thing that robots do better than people, though, is a rote, repetitive task.

Prep cooks are "essentially human machines," said Erickson. "As a chef, I don't want my prep cooks to be creative. I want them to cut something exactly the way it needs to be done."

A robot won't slice its finger, or cough on the food, or get burned taking a pizza out of a hot oven. It will, occasionally, break down, and that's when we'll need humans to step in.

But when robots are functioning properly, they can do much of what humans do, including making "artisanal" food.

"We do encode our own values and judgment and preferences into them," said Hamamoto. Those preferences, at least for now, still include an actual human touch - or at least the appearance of one. And as robots become more common, some consumers may find food made by human hands more valuable.

"The more things become automated, the more there's this desire to have real human-to-human connection," said Weiner. "Great craft food is such an expression of a personal touch."


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Maura Judkis covers culture, food, and the arts.

(c) 2016, The Washington Post · Maura Judkis





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