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Pizza Robots Get the Pink Slip

True, the doughbots didn’t make good pizza. But is the message about them or something else?

Friday to Friday, it’s been a bad week for robots. Last week, Boeing fired the fuselage assembly robots; this week, the hot, hot/not so hot Silicon Valley pizza start-up Zume quietly gave their pizza robots (the “doughbots”) the pink slip.

But is the message here about robots or about something else?

Let’s start with the business strategy: Zume’s original goal was to outperform the pizza delivery business leaders: Domino’s and Pizza Hut. Unlike those leaders—which fully cook and then deliver pizzas—Zume, founded in 2015, intended to use delivery trucks with onboard robots to make and cook the pizzas en route. SoftBank—which also funded the now-teetering WeWork—backed Zume up with a valuation of over $1 billion. That was more than the combined value of the most popular pizza chains.

In 2018, some felt it was time to examine both the tech and the pizza more closely:

Zume Pizza uses robotics and artificial intelligence to make pizza more quickly. Machines press mounds of dough, squirt and spread sauce, and lift pizzas in and out of the oven, in a fraction of the time it would take human workers to do the same.

Melia Robinson, “This startup is raising $750 million to outmaneuver Domino’s and Pizza Hut with pizzas made by robots — check it out” at Business Insider

The verdict on the taste?

The crust is thin, even by East Coast standards. I was disappointed by the way the slice flopped under its own weight. The dough’s flavor disappeared under the toppings…But, oh, what toppings. Thin-sliced pepperoni crunched with each bite, while the the mushrooms and peppers burst with juiciness. The cheese pulled apart like bubble-gum.

Melia Robinson, “This startup is raising $750 million to outmaneuver Domino’s and Pizza Hut with pizzas made by robots — check it out” at Business Insider

Others were less impressed:

We ordered two pizzas from the rather limited menu: the Veggie Zupreme and the Sgt. Pepperoni. The biggest problem was the crust. The texture and taste could best be described as cardboard. The toppings were skimpy, particularly on the veggie; the couple of scraps of peppers and flakes of mushrooms had no resemblance to the piles of brightly colored vegetables pictured on the Web site. The quality of the cheese and sauce were fine; I wouldn’t say the sauce was particularly flavorful, but it wasn’t bad.

Tekla S. Perry, “Zume, the Robotic Pizza Company, Makes Pies Only a Robot Could Love—But Zume’s investors have given it unicorn status anyway ” at IEEE Spectrum (November 13, 2018)

Unicorns are Silicon Valley startups estimated to be worth over $1 billion.

Zume pizza production was a dance between humans and robots. Then the music stopped.

Zume co-founder, Julia Collins, told The Verge that “end-to-end automation” was never the goal. Instead, they hoped to use “predictive technology to make really high-fidelity bets on what pizzas people are going to order.”

So, perhaps the robots should have seen it coming. Pressed recently about the doughbots’ fate, Zume demurred:

Asked about the status and advances in the development of the company’s robotic pizza makers, a Zume representative said in a statement that the company’s mission was to “engineer a more successful sustainable food future.” The statement mentioned Zume’s packaging and its mobile kitchens but made no mention of the robots.”

Megan Hernbroth, “Zume’s senior leaders are leaving at it pursues funding from SoftBank” at Business Insider

Automation is fine and robots can be amazing, despite occasional fake news. But the hype is almost never realized in the real world.

Consider this: If a robot cannot make a pizza (something I manage—and I’m no chef—every weekend), then maybe we’re expecting too much from them and valuing human work too little.

I have nothing against robots. (I am against bad pizza.) I do, however, get very tired of the science fiction-fantasy of humanity-squashing robots. And that’s all it is: A fantasy.

We have no evidence to date that robots will ever be better than humans. They might excel at narrow tasks (possibly making pizza), but the hope of a robot dusting humanity with its superior abilities is little more than a Silicon Valley religious belief.

Let’s build tools. Let’s put them to use to make life better, easier, and safer. But, please, let’s give credit where credit is due: Humans are really amazing. Robots, not so much.


Further tales of automation gone wrong:

Boeing workers, please don’t kick the robot on its way out. The jetliner manufacturer’s decision to give the robots’ job back to machinists underlines the hard realities of automation. For example, it doesn’t always work. Robot error turned out to be a bigger problem than human error.

Laundry robot firm, er, folds. Keeping proposed costs and space requirements within average household budgets may prove a deal breaker for most consumers. And, while folding laundry is a lower-status job, it isn’t a low-skills job.

and

Tech Fail: Man told he is dying via video link The family, who thought that the robotic video cart was just “making a routine visit,” was outraged.


Brendan Dixon

Fellow, Walter Bradley Center for Natural & Artificial Intelligence
Brendan Dixon is a Software Architect with experience designing, creating, and managing projects of all sizes. His first foray into Artificial Intelligence was in the 1980s when he built an Expert System to assist in the diagnosis of software problems at IBM. Since then, he’s worked both as a Principal Engineer and Development Manager for industry leaders, such as Microsoft and Amazon, and numerous start-ups. While he spent most of that time other types of software, he’s remained engaged and interested in Artificial Intelligence.

Pizza Robots Get the Pink Slip