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Demand for robot cooks rises as kitchens combat COVID-19

15th July 2020
"Robots that can cook - from flipping burgers to baking bread - are in growing demand as virus-wary kitchens try to put some distance between workers and customers."

Robots that can cook - from flipping burgers to baking bread - are in growing demand as virus-wary kitchens try to put some distance between workers and customers.

Starting this fall, the White Castle burger chain will test a robot arm that can cook french fries and other foods. The robot, dubbed Flippy, is made by Pasadena, California-based Miso Robotics.

White Castle and Miso have been discussing a partnership for about a year. Those talks accelerated when COVID-19 struck, said White Castle Vice President Jamie Richardson.

Richardson said 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 minimizes contact is also increasingly important to customers, he said.

“The world’s just reshaped in terms of thoughts around food safety,” Richardson said.

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.

Robot food service was a trend even before the coronavirus pandemic, as hospitals, campus cafeterias and others tried to meet demand for fresh, customized options 24 hours a day while keeping labor costs in check. Robot chefs appeared at places like Creator, a burger restaurant in San Francisco, and Dal.komm Coffee outlets in South Korea.

Now, some say, robots may shift from being a novelty to a necessity. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control says the risk of getting COVID-19 from handling or consuming food outside the home is low. Still, there have been numerous outbreaks among restaurant employees and patrons.

“I expect in the next two years you will see pretty significant robotic adoption in the food space because of COVID,” said Vipin Jain, the co-founder and CEO of Blendid, a Silicon Valley startup.

Blendid sells a robot kiosk that makes a variety of fresh smoothies. Customers can order from a smartphone app and tweak the recipe if they want more kale or less ginger, for example. Once or twice a day, a Blendid employee refills the ingredients.

Only a handful are now operating around San Francisco, but since the pandemic began, Blendid has started contract discussions with hospitals, corporations, shopping malls and groceries.

“What used to be forward-thinking - last year, pre-COVID - has become current thinking,” Jain said.

As salad bars shut down, Hayward, California-based Chowbotics started getting more inquiries about Sally, a robot about the size of a refrigerator that makes a variety of salads and bowls. Sally lets customers choose from 22 prepared ingredients stored inside the machine. It can make around 65 bowls a day before kitchen workers need to refill the ingredients.

Prior to this year, Chowbotics had sold around 125 of its $35,000 robots, primarily to hospitals and colleges. But since the coronavirus hit, sales have jumped more than 60%, CEO Rick Wilmer said, with growing interest from grocery stores, senior living communities and even the U.S. Department of Defense.

Wilkinson Baking Co., whose BreadBot mixes, forms and bakes loaves of bread, has also been getting more inquiries. Randall Wilkinson, the CEO of the Walla Walla, Washington-based company, said the BreadBot serves shifting needs. Grocery shoppers no longer want self-serve options like olive bars, but they still want fresh and local food. Seeing how that food is made also gives them more confidence, he said.

Robot cooks haven’t always been successful. Spyce, a Boston restaurant with a robot-run kitchen, closed in November to retool its menu. Zume, a Silicon Valley startup that made pizzas with robots, shut down its pizza business in January. It’s now making face masks and biodegradable takeout containers.

Max Elder, research director of the Food Futures Lab at the Palo Alto, California-based Institute for the Future, is skeptical about the future of food prep robots once the pandemic has eased.

“Food is so personal, and it needs to involve humans,” he said.

Elder is also concerned that focusing on automating food preparation during the pandemic will shift attention from other problems in the food system, like outbreaks among meat industry workers or produce pickers.

“We can’t automate our way out of the pandemic because the pandemic affects much more than what can be automated,” Elder said.

Automated food companies insist they’re not trying to replace human workers. At White Castle, Richardson says Flippy will allow managers to redeploy workers to drive-thru lanes or help them cover a shift if an employee calls in sick. Wilmer, of Chowbotics, says Sally may actually create jobs, since it keeps selling food at times of day when it wouldn’t have been available before.

But robots can lower the demand for labor. At the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences in Little Rock, workers used to spend six hours per day prepping grab-and-go salads in the 24-hour cafe, said Tonya Johnson, the school’s director of nutrition services. But two years ago, the campus installed a Sally, which now makes an average of 40 salads per day. Sally allowed the school to eliminate a vacancy in its cooking staff, Johnson said.

Johnson said the campus is buying another Sally for students to use when they return this August, which will save four hours per day of grab-and-go salad prep in the college deli.

“I think the pandemic has made us realize how much we need more equipment like Sally,” Johnson said.

Miso Robotics co-founder and CEO Buck Jordan said fast food restaurants are already having trouble finding workers, due in part to a shrinking population of young workers.

“It’s our contention that automation is not a choice,” Jordan said. “You must automate in order to survive the future.”

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Compiled by : Samana Maharjan Samana Maharjan

5G-powered robots contribute to control epidemic in China

24th February 2020
"A 5G-powered robot, doctors at a hospital in east China's Zhejiang Province conducted an ultrasound scan for a patient 700 km away in Wuhan."

Using a 5G-powered robot, doctors at a hospital in east China's Zhejiang Province conducted an ultrasound scan for a patient 700 km away in Wuhan, capital of central China's Hubei Province, the center of the novel coronavirus outbreak, according to the Science and Technology Daily.

In line with the patient's ultrasonic images transmitted back in real-time, two doctors, Peng Chengzhong and Ye Ruizhong of Zhejiang Provincial People's Hospital operated a robotic arm via a 5G network that performed the ultrasound scan for a patient in a makeshift hospital in Wuhan.

It was not the first time 5G remote ultrasound technology had been used to treat novel coronavirus patients in China.

The country's first remote ultrasonic medical certificate was issued when Peng conducted an ultrasound scan for a suspected patient in a small city of Zhejiang on Feb. 2.

The 5G smart medical innovation laboratory jointly established by Zhejiang Provincial People's Hospital, telecommunication giant China Telecom and tech giant Huawei, has provided technical support for the two cases.

 A few minutes of cardiopulmonary ultrasound examination will produce up to 2GB of ultrasonic image data, with a high transmission speed and low latency.

 It was also not the first time 5G-powered robots have played a full role in China's epidemic prevention and control.

The 5G cloud intelligent robots developed by another telecommunication giant China Mobile and robot maker CloudMinds have been working in Hubei Province and other places, providing medical services such as remote care, body temperature tests, spraying disinfectants, cleaning, and drug delivery.

The Ministry of Industry and Information Technology said in a notice that it would support the application of the Internet, big data, cloud computing and artificial intelligence in areas such as epidemic monitoring, virus sources tracing, epidemic prevention and treatment.

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Compiled by : Rishi Raj Singh Rishi Raj Singh

Hello and welcome: Robot waiters to the rescue amid coronavirus

31st May 2020
"“Hello and welcome,” the robots say — in a voice best described as pre-programmed."

 A report in AP states that you can always count on a robot for perfect timing.

When Shaosong Hu saw robotic waiters serving food in China last fall, he knew exactly what he wanted for his restaurant in the Dutch beachside town of Renesse. He just didn’t have a clue how useful they would prove.

The coronavirus pandemic has turned a whimsical idea into perhaps a window into a dystopian future where a human touch may make people cringe with fear, and a waiter clearing the table sends a customer tense with stress — only to be relieved by a soothing brush with plastic.

“They came in just ahead of that time,” said Hu’s daughter Leah, who also works at the restaurant, the Royal Palace.

Now, his two shiny white-and-red robots glide across the dining area’s floor where, once the restaurant reopens, they will be serving Chinese and Indonesian specialties like Babi Pangang and Char Siu at 15.5 euros ($17) each.

“Hello and welcome,” the robots say — in a voice best described as pre-programmed.

Their duties will include greeting customers, serving drinks and dishes and returning used glasses and crockery. It’s unclear whether diners will be expected to tip.

One thing the robots will certainly do is see that social distancing rules are respected. “We will use them to make sure the 1.5 meters (5 feet) we need during the corona crisis sticks,” Leah Hu said.

“I’ve had negative reactions,” she said, “such as saying it makes it impersonal.” But it may prove just what customers crave when Dutch restaurants are allowed to reopen on Monday as lockdown restrictions are further eased.

In a stab at quasi-human panache, one robot wears a chiffon scarf around its neck. And the hunt is on to give the two human names, with competition already underway on Instagram. “We don’t have a favorite yet. But the suggestion of Ro and Bot is out. We want to give them a normal name,” said Leah Hu.

Dutch restaurants have been hard hit by the crisis and have been closed for over two months. As of Monday, they will be allowed to reopen but with a maximum of 30 customers. That will force some layout adaptations in the Royal Palace where the robots’ programmed floorplan may have to be changed at the last moment.

And in the southern Zeeland province, the Hus don’t want to hear any complaints about the robots robbing young people of a job. They say it’s hard enough anyway to find staff in a rural region without any major city close by.

“They help us with the work we do,” said Leah Hu. “We are often busy and cleaning tables and the robots give us an extra hand.” It also frees up the human staff for some more personal contact.

“We are not disappearing. We are still here. They will always need people in this industry,” she said.

Adapting to the robots, even your own remains a challenge. “For us, it is still trying to see what works,” she said.

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Compiled by : Debashish S Neupane Debashish S Neupane

In Antwerp, a robot takes the temperature of the patients and checks the wearing of the mask

31st May 2020
""If the patient has a temperature or is not wearing his mask correctly, the following message appears on the screen:" you have a problem, you cannot enter the hospital directly ", explains doctor Michael Vanmechelen."

A report in AFP states that when Belgian patients fearing they may have been infected with the coronavirus go to the university hospital in Antwerp, the first face they see is not that of a masked nurse but of a vaguely human-robot.

The robot takes their temperature and makes sure they are wearing a mask correctly before assessing the probability and severity of the infection and directing them to the appropriate part of the clinic.

The device, built by the Belgian company Zorabots, greets the new arrivals and reads the patient data provided by a questionnaire completed beforehand by the potential patient.

This is certainly not a diagnosis, but it is a useful step that reduces the contacts of the medical team with potentially infected patients before their admission to the hospital.

"If the patient has a temperature or is not wearing his mask correctly, the following message appears on the screen:" you have a problem, you cannot enter the hospital directly ", explains doctor Michael Vanmechelen.

"You must then be examined. The robot never works alone, it always acts in support of a hospital employee who works there," he adds.

In this period of gradual return to normal, after confinement of the population which lasted more than two months in Belgium, "there will be a multitude of people who will have to be tested," said Fabrice Goffin, one of the co-directors of Zorabots.

"The advantage of this robot is that it can check not only the patient's temperature but also if he is wearing a mask," he adds.

With more than 9,000 deaths, Belgium has recorded one of the highest death rates in the world per number of inhabitants.

A figure which is however to be taken with certain precautions since Belgium includes in its balance sheet even cases not confirmed by a test but simply suspect when a person dies in a retirement home where cases of coronavirus have been discovered.

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Compiled by : Debashish S Neupane Debashish S Neupane