Technology conquering the human world is a fear many people have—a dreadful prediction that often comes in the form of humanoid robots. Although the complex worlds of AI and metal machines are still a cause of concern for most of us as they continue to slowly merge with our daily lives, South Korea seems to be on a whole other page. Instead, the country’s government is willingly introducing robots to society, starting with the bright-eyed and bushy-tailed youth in its capital city of Seoul. While robots interacting with kids for educational purposes is not entirely new either—they are already being used to teach social skills to children with autism—the new tech-based teaching aids being tested in kindergartens to assist children with their learning is a first. And it’s going on as we speak. Here’s how it works.
As initially reported in The Guardian, Seoul’s government shared that the city is home to a pilot project that aims to help prepare young minds for a high-tech future. 300 nurseries and childcare centres are currently trialling the robots, with the government recommending the programme for children aged three to five.
Though pint-sized, the ‘Alpha Mini’, manufactured by UBTECH Robotics, is making its grand debut into academic services. Designed with the purpose of being educational, the robot is by no means a toy—it is specifically tailored to help teachers in the classroom with young children. Standing 24.5 centimetres tall, the robot assistant is capable of carrying out a multitude of tasks including dancing, leading sing-alongs and reciting stories. The Alpha Mini is also equipped with the ability to teach kung fu as children can mimic its push-ups and one-legged balances. Pretty neat, right? Almost makes you forget about Terminator-esque scenarios.
And for good reasons—they aren’t as scary as you’d think. Designed with kid-friendliness at its core, the robot’s eyes can wink, blink and turn. What’s more is that its pupils can also become heart-shaped during conversations. If that wasn’t enough, it can even sneeze. With a camera attached to its helmet, it can additionally take photos that are then sent to a tablet for viewing. Alpha Mini comes geared to go and pre-installed with a range of features including an HD camera, a whopping 14 servo motors, three sensors, four microphones, smooth stereo sound and even a gyroscope. The robots are configured to work with Windows PC, iOS and Android tablet programmes and can recognise around 75 voice commands in English. The futuristic little helpers can interact both naturally and intuitively, and come with a facial recognition system which allows them to easily follow children’s actions so they can quickly bond with bots—thereby breaking the ice with technology as a whole.
What’s even more interesting about these handy-dandy droids is that children can help programme them too. Kids can help out in class and use the Alpha Mini to learn more about mechanics and computer science. The Guardian also noted the case of teacher Byun Seo-yeon, who visited the happy and lively Maru nursery in Seoul. “The robots help with the kids’ creativity,” Seo-yeon said to Agence France-Presse (AFP).
According to Generation Robots—a European robotics distributor—the Alpha Mini uses AI to “communicate, move and recognise faces and objects.” Anyone can get their hands on these portable bots, though they are valued for €1,200 (just above £1,000). They work as neat and nifty automatons and can create “personalised lessons for individual students or to small groups of pupils.” With the added bonus of being programmable, adults can use them to plan out a variety of activities including: writing, reading, history and mathematics. Generation Robots also retails the Alpha Mini Robot Curriculum (an educational pack) for €60 (£50), along with the robots that allows children to familiarise themselves with the basics of robotech with student and teacher booklets inside.
Han Dong-seog, a member of Seoul government’s child care division also spoke to AFP and gleefully commented, “In the future, knowing how to manage AI and related tools will be very important. We believe having this experience in nursery schools will have a lasting effect throughout their youth and as adults.”
So far, it certainly seems as though the Alpha Mini is welcomed by everyone, especially the students at Maru who are overjoyed with their new bot buddy. It has been adopted as part of a daily schedule for the class of four to five year-old students. They particularly seem to enjoy its ability to “fart” on command, being a highlight during playtime. One very excited student, Lee Ga-yoon, told AFP, “When I tell it to sing, it sings well. I tell it to dance and we dance together.” What more could you ask for?
They can’t instantly whip up pesto eggs or baked feta pasta just yet, but robot chefs are having a moment. According to TechCrunch, Chef Robotics, the startup behind a robot able to handle all commercial kitchen tasks just raised $7.7 million to help automate kitchens, which will increase production and consistency while wasting less food—ultimately saving restaurants money.
Meanwhile, online food delivery platform DoorDash recently purchased Chowbotics whose ‘Sally’ robot preps on-demand salads and bowls, and American fast food restaurant chain White Castle expanded a partnership with Miso Robotics whose ‘Flippy’ bot makes chips. To put it simply, demand for robot chefs boomed during the pandemic as businesses looked to decrease human contact. In order to fully predict the future of the food tech industry, we looked at the most promising robot chefs and exactly what improvements they have to offer foodies in 2021.
“At Chef, we believe and are working to create a future where we all have an opportunity to self-actualize our highest potential, to be innovative and creative, to lead others, to create art, and to love others. In other words, we want to empower humans to be, well, human!” reads Chef Robotics’ manifesto. The product team includes ex-employees of Cruise, Google, Verb Surgical, Zoox and Strateos.
Chef’s team isn’t quite ready to show off its product just yet, which is not entirely unusual for a robotics company still in the early stages. What it has promised so far is a robotics and vision system destined to increase production volume and enhance consistency, while removing some food waste from the process. Fast food restaurants appear to be a key focus for this sort of technology.
“Chef is designed to mimic the flexibility of humans, allowing customers to handle thousands of different kinds of food using minimal hardware changes. Chef does this using artificial intelligence that can learn how to handle more and more ingredients over time and that also improves. This allows customers to do things like change their menu often. Additionally, Chef’s modular architecture allows customers to quickly scale up just as they would by hiring more staff (but unlike humans, Chef always shows up on time and doesn’t need breaks),” explains the company’s website. No doubt we’ll be getting more details on the underlying tech very soon.
Chowbotics’ refrigerator-sized robot Sally can assemble custom bowls on-demand from fresh ingredients protected in an airtight, refrigerated container. “It’s innovative technology that makes convenient fresh foodservice possible anytime, anywhere,” reads the company’s website, now owned by San Francisco-based DoorDash, as mentioned above.
Before 2021 came along, Chowbotics had sold around 125 of its $35,000 robots, mostly to universities, medical centres and grocery stores. But the company said sales jumped during the COVID-19 pandemic as customers looked for touch-free ways to dispense food.
So why exactly would the food delivery market leader that offers delivery from 390,000 merchants in the US, Canada and Australia buy a robotics company? According to ABC News, DoorDash said Chowbotics’ robots could allow its restaurant partners to offer more varieties of meals without having to expand their kitchen space. Other DoorDash merchants, like convenience stores, could also use it to expand into fresh food.
From a Pasadena garage to White Castle kitchens, Miso Robotics’ Flippy was initially created as a burger-flipping robot and can now also cook chips to perfection. No wonder it got a position at the American regional hamburger restaurant chain, right?
At the time of the partnership’s announcement, White Castle Vice President Jamie Richardson explained how the robot can free up employees for other tasks like disinfecting tables or handling the rising number of delivery orders. “A touch-free environment that minimises contact is also increasingly important to customers,” he said.
It was reported by AP News that Flippy currently costs $30,000, with a $1,500 monthly service fee. “By the middle of next year , Miso hopes to offer the robot for free but charge a higher monthly fee,” reads the article which was published in July 2020.
Now, this one is pretty special. In January 2021, London-based robotics company Moley announced that it will begin selling the first robot chef, according to the Financial Times. The company explained that its ceiling-mounted device called the Moley Robotics Kitchen will be able to cook over 5,000 recipes and even clean up after itself when it’s done. Bonus? The technology is built for at-home service, not in restaurant kitchens like the ones mentioned previously.
The Kitchen, which took six years to develop, consists of two robotic arms that glide along a track installed in the ceiling of a customer’s kitchen. The arms are fitted with two articulating hands that can recreate the actions and movements of professional chefs, which have been uploaded into its memory. Back in 2017, the robot chef could only make one dish: crab bisque. Now, it will come pre-programmed with thousands of recipes. All you need to do is simply select what you want to eat on a touchscreen, and let it get to work.
Of course, there are still skills the robotic kitchen hasn’t mastered just yet. While it can crack an egg, it isn’t yet capable of peeling a potato or dicing carrots. Because of this, you’ll need to handle some of the prep work yourself, and then lay out the pre-weighed ingredients on the counter or in its smart fridge for it to work its magic.
The machine, which can be fully customised to blend right into your kitchen, starts at £248,000, but Moley hopes to introduce slightly more accessible models in the future.
Blendid’s smoothie-making robot kiosk can make 45 smoothies in an hour, which customers order touch-free through their phones in locations such as Walmart and college campuses in the US. This year, the company behind the ultra-fast smoothie-maker is looking to expand its franchise in more supermarkets across the country. Forget about your go-to overpriced green juice from your neighbourhood’s coffee shop—Blendid’s drinks are sold between $5 and $6 maximum.
F&P Robotics’ ‘Barney’ is a robot bartender that can also tell jokes. The robot can mix up to 16 different spirits and eight different sodas for customers who place their orders via their smartphones, as well as offering beer and prosecco. Once the drinks are ready, Barney, who can disinfect his own robotic arm, by the way, tells clients their drink is ready via a large video display above the bar. A barista version making different coffees has also been developed.
One thing is for sure, the future of the food tech industry is looking bright, and whether you’re looking forward to hearing Barney’s dad jokes or not… it certainly looks like you won’t have much of a choice. Buckle up!