New Thinking

The automat is our past, present and future

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It’s well past noon, but it’s never a bad time to get a good lunch at Chowbotics—as long as your idea of a good lunch is a salad. A guest swipes through photos of bowls brimming with greens on the front of the vending machine affectionately known as Sally the Salad Robot, and selects the Silicon Valley Salad: kale with olives, cucumber, fried wontons, grilled chicken and bell peppers. Another tap adds parmesan, and the salad’s stats update to reflect the addition’s caloric impact. Then it’s time for Sally to get cooking.

Inside the machine, two concentric rings of plastic canisters turn, dropping first a cascade of kale, then a fusillade of tomatoes, a bloop of dressing, and each of the other ingredients in turn. Some of the wonton strips hit the rim of the bowl and fall out. Sally, after all, is still in beta.

When her kinks are smoothed out, inventor and Chowbotics chief executive Deepak Sekar foresees his creation ushering in a new era of fresh food convenience, the kind of leap forward that another technological marvel, the automat, brought to food culture early in the last century. Other food vending technology companies, including eatsa, Le Bread Express and Zume, are attacking the automat-plus-modern-technology concept from different angles. Attaining even half of the cultural prominence and financial success of the original would be a home run for any of them.

The Automat of the Past
Like Sally, Horn & Hardart’s Automat gave working people access to fresh food, quickly provisioned, with no waiter to tip. Customers at the eateries, the first of which opened in 1902, perused row upon row of glass-and-steel compartments, each showcasing a single food item, and then purchased their selection by dropping a nickel in a slot and turning a knob to open the compartment. Unseen workers cooked the food and refilled the boxes from the back. Like automation in any era, the Horn & Hardart’s Automat saved money on labor, which it passed on to the customer, keeping food items priced at just a nickel for decades. Horn & Hardart even offered a low-tech version of meal customization: Since each vegetable, entree and cup of coffee was purchased separately, each customer could build her own meal, from a 10-cent coffee break to a 50-cent feast.

The automats began to fade midcentury, crowded out by fast food restaurants, and the last one closed in 1991. But it would not be surprising if we are entering a new automat age now, says Rebecca Chesney, research director of the Institute for the Future’s Food Futures Lab.

“In the early days of industrialization in the US, when people were moving from farm-based, land-based work into factories, automats emerged in city centers because people needed to eat. They were no longer working on their farms and eating at home,” Chesney says. Besides the advent of fast food eateries, the original automats were hurt when people and companies moved from city centers into suburbs. Now that many downtowns are again bustling with corporate headquarters and office workers, the opportunity to feed large numbers of people efficiently has again arisen, but with a twist: Today’s urban lunchers are more interested in freshness and nutrition than their Salisbury-steak-loving grandparents.

“[Entrepreneurs] are thinking, how do we help people not have to trade off health and quality for convenience?” Chesney says.

The Automats of Today
For Sekar, solving that problem means inventing machines that can make food on the spot, improving on the relatively recent development of vending machines that dispense packaged sandwiches and salads. “Today’s vending machines are outdated devices. Most of them sell junk food,” Sekar says. “With Sally, you get good quality, fresh, customizable food.” Sekar, who invented his first kitchen robot to help him and his wife cook Indian food at home, intends to create future versions of Sally that dispense a range of cuisines.

Chowbotics plans to place its first machines in offices without cafeterias, where Sally can save workers 15 minutes or more a day by eliminating lunch runs. Other typical places where you’d find vending machines such as gyms and hospitals are also potential Sally locations. Sekar doesn’t feel that Sally would replace whole restaurants, but he says restaurant owners he speaks with are open to robotics—in its place. “They want the front of the house to have human workers, because hospitality is all about having humans there for you to interact with,” Sekar says. “But in the back of the house, they want to have robots to automate some of the repetitive tasks.”

Another company, eatsa, has positioned its 21st century automat as a standalone restaurant. Entering an eatsa feels like being a tourist in the future or stepping inside a virtual reality showroom. There is no counter and no cashier, just a row of glass-fronted compartments that looks like a bank of televisions, and a sparely designed dispenser of plastic cutlery and napkins to one side. Only one employee is generally present, standing to the side with little to do except answer questions. On a blustery spring day in San Francisco’s Financial District, a customer brushes past the row of iPads on stands outside the restaurant to get to the shelter of the uncluttered storefront. Pop music fills the small space. Just as the customer crosses the threshold, one of the compartment fronts turns black, then a translucent green, and a first name followed by an initial appears on the glass. Without breaking his stride, the customer taps twice on the glass, takes a disposable bowl with a plastic film lid, and leaves. Customers can order on the provided iPads, but this man has clearly used the app to order ahead, reducing his breakfast run time to just seconds.

Just like at Horn & Hardart’s Automat, human hands craft eatsa’s food, and it shows. While Sally’s salad had a haphazard appearance and needed vigorous stirring to get the dressing off the bottom of the bowl, an eatsa quinoa bowl is artfully apportioned, with a perfectly poached egg on top. eatsa has been close-mouthed about the details of its invisible kitchens, but co-founder David Friedberg told the New York Times that “over time we want to automate more and more to increase speed and reduce cost.”

Sally, of course, does not operate free of human intervention either. She needs a person to replace her canisters of greens, chopped vegetables and dressing, and take away the old ones to be washed. Sally doesn’t chop anything herself, nor does she heat anything; she’s really a big refrigerator with a clever ingredient dispenser. Other companies pushing the food vending boundaries have incorporated ovens, such as Le Bread Express, set up by French entrepreneur Benoit Herve to bake baguettes on demand in two San Francisco locations, and 24/7 PizzaBox, an Italian import that bakes pre-made slices of local pizzeria’s pies. Then there’s Zume, the automated pizza joint in Mountain View, where robots craft “artisanal” pies that are baked in the delivery van, drawing on algorithms to turn on the oven at just the right point in the route.

The Automats of the Future
A pizza delivery van can’t exactly be considered a vending machine; after all, a human (who you’re not supposed to tip) takes the food out and brings it to your door. But what if the van drives itself? Drones, both aerial and terrestrial, are already delivering food. If a machine dispenses the food you bought at your door or desk, isn’t that just a mobile version of a vending machine?

Chesney, of the IFTF, thinks so, and she sees the potential unshackling of vending machines from fixed places bringing the same kind of expansion of options that Uber and Lyft brought to urban travelers. “If you have drone delivery or driverless car delivery, your choices are much wider because you’re no longer bound to what’s in that vending machine in front of you,” Chesney says. Seen that way, the automat of the future might not be one place, but a whole network of rolling vending machines you can summon with a finger tap.

Other potential aspects of future automats include:

Food Printed on Demand: Mixing up a salad on demand, or even rolling up a burrito, seems simplistic compared to the notion of 3D printing a meal or snack using basic ingredients. It may sound hopelessly futuristic, but researchers at the Technical Research Centre of Finland have already prototyped snacks printed layer-by-layer from such materials as protein concentrates and starch, with the long-term vision of developing vending machines that can create customized healthy snacks with appealing textures.

Far-Reaching Interoperability: Sally, eatsa and even “smart” versions of more conventional vending machines collect data by design. Since customers pay with credit cards or phones, the machine naturally recognizes the customer at each visit and adds to the company’s data stockpile on this person. Orwellian frisson factor aside, this constant data collection provides opportunities for the automats of the future to cooperate with other technology, such as fitness trackers or insulin pumps. Such interoperability could guide diners’ orders; a future Sally might reject that request to add parm if it exceeds the customer’s self-imposed calorie or sodium limit for the day. Big data has already been helping companies send messages about consumer preferences up the supply chain, and automated food delivery systems like eatsa and Sally, Chesney says, will accelerate that development.

Social Impact: Just as it was at Horn & Hardart’s, it’s fun to choose exactly what you want to eat and have it delivered in a novel way. But it’s not long before nagging questions start impinge on the fun: What happens to the fast food and cafe workers—some of the most vulnerable people in the economy—such technologies would displace? Is it a good thing that eatsa and Sally make it possible to get a meal without having to tip anyone or even say thank you—or does this simply further alienate you from people outside your friends list?

For the first question, Sekar doesn’t concede that Sally eliminates jobs, since she’s more likely to replace an unstaffed salad bar than a cafe. But he’s philosophical about the fact that some of Chowbotics’ future products might replace human workers. “If you look at history, 200 years back a majority of the world’s population was working on farms. Then you started having harvesting machines. When all these innovations came in, it’s not like the people who lost their jobs there were sitting idle. You started having the industrial revolution, and then people were working in factories,” he says. Chesney points out that tech companies could make a bigger impact on the world if they broadened their target market beyond people who already have an array of food choices to, say, elderly people living in food deserts. The same technology could also be used to route uneaten food to the hungry and reduce waste in the entire food system.

As for social isolation, Chesney says technology tends to enable people’s intentions, whether toward isolation or connection. For instance, the IFTF has interviewed Uber drivers and found that some riders use the app to ride silently, while other folks enjoy that the app connects them with new people to talk with. “I don’t think it’s necessarily a good or bad thing when people turn to machines for lunch,” Chesney says. The question, she emphasized, is how we respond to the changes technology brings and how we can use it to make a better future.

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