At the Smart Kitchen Summit this week, panelists talking to The Spoon’s Chris Albrecht had a lot of different thoughts on the role of robots in the food industry. They even had different definitions. To Rishi Israni, founder of Zimplistic, robots are “electromechanical devices that [do] a series of complex steps.” To Cynthia Yeung, COO of Cafe-X, they’re everyday items like dishwashers.

Varying definitions aside, the group onstage, which also included Chowbotics CEO Deepak Sekar, all agreed on a few key facts about robots in the food industry:

Robots are really great at precise, mechanical tasks.
Whether churning out cup after cup of coffee without tiring or running a more hygienic salad station, robots are ideal for helping humans with some of the more rote tasks that go along with any food-related business, particularly those in the hospitality sector. “The number one market robots can address are accommodations and food service,” said Sekar.

Robots are really bad at anything involving emotions.
In a theme that’s been surfacing again and again over the course of SKS, robots aren’t exactly ideal when it comes to doing things that tie closely to human emotions. They can’t help you make a guest feel extra special (yet). They won’t be able to offer a stressed out barista a pep talk during a busy morning rush. This is another reason many believe robots need to work alongside humans, not replace them.

Robots are going to take away our jobs . . .
That said, not every job is safe from the bots. “I’ve lost a lot of sleep thinking about if the thing I’m building is going to take jobs,” said Sekar. While he noted that Chowbotics is “not really reducing labor” with its robot, he agreed some job loss because of automation is inevitable. Israni had a similar response, saying that while his company’s product isn’t blatantly striving to replace humans, it could impact the restaurant industry, since the Rotimatic is meant to be used at home.

. . . but not as many as we think.
Yeung had a slightly different take on the issue of humans versus robots, pointing out that Cafe-X sees its customer base as being two demographics. One group has seen the robot multiple times and just wants to get their coffee. The other wants a more guided experience, wants to ask questions about the machine and the coffee. “True hospitality is about meeting your user where they’re at,” she said. And so far, providing that level of customer service is something the robots haven’t mastered.

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Jenn is a writer and editor for The Spoon who covers restaurant tech and food delivery, developments in agriculture and indoor farming, and startup accelerators and incubators. On the side, she moonlights as a ghostwriter for tech industry executives and spends a lot of time on the road exploring food developments in more remote parts of the country. Previously, she was managing editor of Gigaom’s market research department and was once a competitive pinball player. Jenn splits her time between NYC and Nashville, TN.

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