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Hand Picked by Robots – The Beginning of the End for Humans in the Food Sector?

By Steve Wells, Rohit Talwar, and Alexandra Whittington
How might smart technologies impact food and beverage industry jobs in the next 10 years?

The so called Fourth Industrial Revolution is bringing with it successive waves of ever-smarter technologies that could redefine our most basic notions of business, work, employment, wages, government, society, human purpose, and the daily lives of people on this planet. This article explores how such developments could impact the workplace—using the food industry as an example of how deep the applications could go and how wide-ranging the impacts might be.

We’re already used to seeing armies of shiny robots undertaking repetitive manufacturing tasks in the food industry—now they are spreading to a variety of roles previously considered the exclusive domain of humans. For example, smart robots and drones are in growing use on farms for a range of tasks from ploughing and planting, to inspection, pruning, and harvesting. El Dulze, a Spanish food processor, now uses robotics to pick up heads of lettuce from a conveyor belt, rejecting those that do not comply with company standards.

In Germany, BratwurstBot takes your order, cooks the sausage to your requirements, and serves it. Artificial intelligence (AI) is used in planning delivery routes and predicting what goods are likely to be in high demand and therefore need to be ordered. In the UK, Honest launched a totally unmanned, AI-powered coffee kiosk. We are also seeing robots and AI being used in recipe creation, food preparation, bar tending, and table service. New applications in the sector are literally being announced daily.

However, this is just the start; the next waves of development will see the combinatorial effect of AI, robotics, big data, and cloud services working together, creating the opportunity for machines to interact with humans through the provision of services rather than simply delivering us data, analysis, and decision support. Some recent examples of AI in food production include the Hands-Free Hectare project from Harper Adams University, which is farming a plot of land with zero human intervention whatsoever; and Arable, a start-up that hopes to revolutionize the food supply chain with AI-enabled predictive farming.

As the cost of manufacturing robots declines and technological capabilities expand, it’s ever more likely that robots will gradually be substituted for labor in a wide range of low-wage service occupations. Imagine a restaurant with humans, augmented humans, robots, holo- grams, and smart AI table top displays all working in the same space. As a human, do you trust your robot server, chef, and bartender? What happens when the robot is smarter than you, or knows what you want before you do through the use of predictive analytics? Will the AI chef interact directly with the AI-based intelligent agent on your phone to ascertain allergies and intolerances before preparing your meal? Could the bartender and your intelligent agent work together to surprise you with a new cocktail prepared specifically to your taste preferences?

As business leaders and managers, the advent of these new technologies working alongside or in place of humans creates as whole new set of requirements for how we supervise, mentor, motivate, and reward such a blended workforce. The issue of the rights and protections of robots also starts to emerge—many films depict humans trying to sabotage or harm their robot counterparts. Should we try to protect robots and give them similar workplace protections as those who they may be replacing? Furthermore, should we be concerned about the potential risks that could arise from the total automation of our food supply and food chain?

The much cited 2013 study on the Future of Employment by Carl Benedikt Frey and Michael Osborne of the Oxford Martin School found that in the food and beverage industry food scientists were the least likely to lose out to computerization whereas fast food workers and coffee shops were among the most likely. It is entirely possible that, in the next 20 years, 80% or more of current jobs in the food and beverage industry could become obsolete, fully or partially auto- mated, or redesigned to eliminate the human component. For those who believe that employment is the preferred future for humanity, the challenge is to ensure that we are doing enough today by encouraging the industries of tomorrow, supporting entrepreneurship and enabling start-ups, preparing the workforce of tomorrow, and re-motivating and reskilling those whose jobs are displaced by automation. Clearly there will still be a demand for humans in a range of roles that require creativity, innovation, problem-solving, collaboration, and customer engagement. So, we might accept a robo-chef at a fast food outlet where consistency and speed are key; however, when going for more upmarket dining options where talent, inspiration, creativity, and service are the attraction, we think many people would likely prefer a human chef and waiting staff.

Forward-looking industry leaders are already investing the time to understand what’s coming over the horizon, experimenting with the technologies, and preparing their staff for change. This includes equipping managers with the skills to help and motivate employees to learn new roles quickly, take up new opportunities, and even start their own business. Helping individuals take control of their own destiny is an increasingly common trait of the enlightened organization.


  • How will the food and beverage industry reinvent itself for the Fourth Revolution?
  • How might AI change our food routines and indirectly the supply chain and logistics of the industry?
  • How might AI be used to help address employee learning needs?


This article is excerpted from Beyond Genuine Stupidity – Ensuring AI Serves Humanity. You can order the book here.


Image: by geralt

A version of this article was originally published in Food & Beverage Magazine.


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