18.08.2018

“Artificial intelligence is going to change every people’s life and it started right from the food industry. AI has already changed the whole food process while robotic staff are replacing humans in restaurants and cafe”

We are now getting used to imagine multiple uses of artificial intelligence or robotics, especially when it comes to China. Over the last years, the People’s Republic has demonstrated to master this advanced technology and to be able to put it at the service of both the industries and the users.

The goal to become an AI superpower is scheduled to be reached by 2030, but Beijing does not seem to waste time. Thanks to the Made in China 2025 plan, the country is already very close to rewriting the global geography of hi-tech innovation but it now aims to bring AI into everyday life. As a result, the hi-tech “Great Leap” is helping to save labor costs while enhancing efficiency and speed.

Therefore, in order to bring these extraordinary innovations in people’s lives, Beijing, as well as many governments around the world, started with transforming the ordinary.

Smart cities, hyper-efficient transportation, unmanned deliveries, intelligent waste bins, these are all ordinary places and actions that AI already changed drastically. However, what represents more the everyday life than food? And in China, the food industry enhanced by artificial intelligence has spread like wildfire.

Ratio cocktail bar and café in Shanghai is just the last of many robotic experiences launched across the Middle Kingdom in the last year. Here robot arms are in charge to prepare people’s coffee and they do it fast and tasty.

Customers can place their order via WeChat choosing what kind of beans the automated barista should use and the level of sweetness preferred. Although the cafeteria is attracting people for its future-like technology, the enhanced service and menù items are actually competitive, leaving no space for food criticism.

However, even if in 2018, companies including Alibaba’s grocery chain Hema and JD.com captured public attention by using service robots, AI is actually revolutionising the whole food industry from the production to the delivery.

“According to the Chinese leadership, robotics will be a key cog in Made in China 2025 strategy. PRC’s robot-maker will dominate the domestic market, thus the goal is to supply 50% of local demand by 2020, rising to 70% by 2025”

There are many examples of how artificial intelligence is already changing the food industry or how it can be applied in the near future.

The first and oldest application of AI in the industry is food sorting. A system that combines machine learning capabilities with cameras and sensors is able to sort potatoes or tomatoes just like humans do. The result is fewer hours spent on manual sorting, higher yields, less waste, and better quality.

Then, AI in the food industry can be also applied in hygiene procedures and cleaning processing equipment. Facial recognition and object recognition software determine personal and items hygiene providing smart solutions and thus optimizing the whole cleaning process in order to improve the process and save water, time and cost.

The same technology would also help farming and the development of new products. Not only AI can create optimal growing conditions but data can also help to monitor all the production process detecting plant diseases and improving soil health other than also help companies develop products that match the preferences of their target audience.

Therefore, the whole supply chain management could leverage the increase in the use of advanced technologies.

As mentioned above, China has already introduced AI in its daily food process. From farms management to food delivery, major Chinese tech companies implemented the use of drones, robots and machine learning to respond to multiple industry’s demands.

Moreover, restaurants hosting android staff have been spreading all over China since 2013 when the first robot restaurant opened in Harbin, in Heilongjiang province. Even the American chicken chain KFC together with the Chinese internet company Baidu developed stationary robots to help take customers’ orders in Shanghai’s fast food diner.

In addition, on October 28, 2018, the first fully robot-run restaurant opened in Beijing, a project by Ying Hai Holding born from the collaboration of the well-known Haidilao hotpot chain and the Japanese technology giant Panasonic.

This fully automated restaurant operates via radio frequency identification attached to every object that communicates with robotic arms to select the right dish. The android waiter then delivers the dishes at the table where the customer is left to cook them inside the spicy pot.

The e-commerce giant Alibaba also rolled out a chain of diners staffed by robotic waiters. The futuristic restaurant concept branded Robot.He is designed to raise efficiency and is expected to lower costs up to a million yuan per year by replacing human staff with robots.

The only tool the customer needs entering Robot.He is the smartphone. Indeed, the mobile phone is necessary to reserve the table, choose the food to eat and to give the robots instructions to cook it, to serve it and to pay for the dishes.

Alibaba opened these human-free restaurants within its Hema supermarkets, which also leverage automation in the business concept. Here, customers can, in fact, load a virtual cart with groceries via a mobile app. They can choose either to have the grocery sent straight into the kitchen at Robot.He to be prepared while they finish shopping, or have it packed up and sent home and these deliveries take just 30 minutes.

“The robot will be the ultimate assistant for guest who want everything quickly and conveniently at their fingertips” says Lijuan Chen, General Manager of Alibaba AI Labs”

According to Hou Yi, the founder of the Hema supermarket chain, 70% of the entire kitchen process in his restaurants is already automated.

There are currently 100 Hema supermarkets in 16 cities including Beijing and Shanghai, all of which will eventually feature diners with robotic waiters.

Nevertheless, the other Chinese e-commerce titan JD.com has made public its intentions to open 1,000 automated restaurants by 2020, in which robots prepare and serve the food. But JD.com has already introduced AI in its own food industry. Throughout the years, the company employed AI in storages and drones for food delivery.

Other Chinese startups are combining food and robotics in new ways. For years, many companies have been developing machines that chop and cook ingredients paving the way for the age of automated food preparation. According to a 2018 assessment by the Chinese Industry of Electronics, while food and catering startups using automation are still in the early stages, the industry as a whole shows great potential for growth.

In China, the road to the robotics supremacy was implemented in 2017 when The State Council released the New Generation Artificial Intelligence Development Plan. This project outlines the country’s strategy to build a domestic AI industry worth nearly $150 billion in the next few years and to become the leading AI power by 2030.

The Plan thus officially marked the development of the AI sector as a national priority and part of the broader Made in China 2025 plan, which guides the country’s industrial modernization encouraging companies to embrace automation. Indeed, Beijing’s Robotics Industry Development Plan targets the production of at least 100,000 industrial robots a year by 2020.

“China witnessed a huge growth of industries dedicated to the development of AI, reaching the number of 4040AI companies in May 2018, whose 26% is located in Beijing.”

Although AI is not so close in replacing workers in the food industry, as they are still needed to maintain old equipment and come up with creative ideas for new food opportunities, this new technology is already working side-by-side with humans to increase efficiency in the food industry, which is expected to be automated up to 90% of operations in a few years.

China is home to the largest and fastest-growing robotics market on earth and AI is actually becoming part of people’s everyday lives. The food industry has already been transformed by advanced technologies in its most hidden processes. The service to the customer is just the last food industry’s service left to be implemented by AI and it is already going through the transformation into automation.

With the use of AI in the most ordinary industry, the Dragon confirms its plan to implement artificial intelligence in people’s lives and to be ready to become the world’s next hi-tech pole.

The AI revolution will change the world as we know it and it is doing it starting right from the food industry.

Credit: Alywin Chew, ChinaDaily
Will That Be With a Robot or Straight?