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‘Eat the future, pay with your face’: my dystopian trip to an AI burger joint

🌈 Abstract

The article discusses the opening of CaliExpress, a fully autonomous restaurant in Los Angeles that uses AI-powered robots to prepare fast-food burgers and fries. It explores the implications of this technology for the future of fast-food and the potential impact on human workers.

🙋 Q&A

[01] The Autonomous Restaurant CaliExpress

1. What is CaliExpress and how does it operate?

  • CaliExpress is the world's first fully autonomous restaurant, using a system of AI-powered robots to prepare fast-food burgers and fries.
  • The restaurant has a small number of human staff who push buttons on the machines and assemble the burgers and toppings.
  • The companies involved claim that using their technology could dramatically reduce labor costs.

2. What was the author's experience visiting CaliExpress?

  • The author visited CaliExpress and found it to be mostly empty, with few actual customers and mostly other journalists present.
  • The restaurant was decorated with early prototypes of robot arms and a riff on Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel, with a human hand reaching out to a robot claw holding french fries.
  • The author ordered a robot-made cheeseburger and fries, which cost $15 plus tax.

3. How do the key robots at CaliExpress work?

  • The "BurgerChef" machine produced the burger by grinding wagyu steak to order, squeezing it out from a tube, and then browning it between two metal plates.
  • The "Flippy" robot, a large, snake-like arm extending from the ceiling, was responsible for the french fry preparation, including dropping the frozen potato slices into the frying basket and dunking it into the oil.

[02] The Role of AI in CaliExpress

1. How is AI being used in the CaliExpress restaurant?

  • Flippy's AI components were designed for subtle and difficult tasks, such as adjusting to differently sized kitchens and ranges, and using computer vision to monitor the placement of fry baskets.
  • The AI also informed Flippy's "scheduling and forecasting" abilities, allowing it to decide the optimal order to cook the food during busy and slow periods.

2. What are the claimed benefits of using AI-powered robots in the restaurant?

  • The companies involved claim that the robots can make the work of human employees easier and safer, reducing the need for them to perform dangerous tasks like working with hot oil.
  • Employees would need to learn new skills, such as how to maintain and service the robots, rather than just learning how to cook french fries.

3. How does the author's experience with the robot-made food compare to traditional fast-food?

  • The robot-made burger was described as "thoroughly mediocre," with the beef being a little rubbery.
  • However, the robot-made fries were praised as being crispy and nicely browned, an improvement over the "limp potato offerings" often found in fast-food restaurants.
  • After leaving CaliExpress, the author found themselves craving the familiar flavors of a traditional McDonald's cheeseburger, which was delivered to them much faster than the robot-made burger.
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