Pandemic Presents Opportunities for Robots; Teaching Them is a Challenge 

By John P. Desmond, AI Trends Editor    
The pandemic is opening up opportunities for robots in the restaurant business as kitchens look for ways to distance employees and customers.   
White Castle, the regional hamburger restaurant chain, is testing a robot arm from  Miso Robotics , for cooking french fries and other food, according to an account in the  Associated Press.  The two companies had been in discussions for about a year; talks picked up when the coronavirus hit. One potential benefit is the robot can free up time for human staff to handle increasing delivery orders.   
Vipin Jain, co-founder and CEO, Blended Robot use by the restaurant industry is expected to pick up. “ I expect in the next two years you will see pretty significant robotic adoption in the food space because of C ovid ,” stated Vipin Jain, the co-founder and CEO of  Blendid , a Silicon Valley startup.  
Blendid ’s   robot kiosk makes fresh smoothies  according to a recipe c ustomers tweak  from their smartphone app.  A  Blendid  employee  keeps ingredients  refill ed  once or twice a day. The company has a handful of kiosks operating around San Francisco, and is making sales outreaches to hospitals, shopping malls and supermarkets. “What used to be forward-thinking —last ye ar, pre-Covid —has  become current thinking,” Jain s aid .  
Max Elder is skeptical about the future of food prep robots.  In the same AP article Elder, t he research director of the Food Futures Lab at the Institute of the Future in Palo Alto , argued that food is personal and needs a human touch.  He  worries that  robots  will  distract  from important  human rights i ssues in the food industry  including  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,”  he said .  
Beyond  the question of how far robots can go to replace humans in the restaurant and food service industries, is the question of how robots can be trained to do the tasks required of restaurant workers or even to execute household chores.  
Robots Learning to Set the Table by Observing Humans  
Ankit Shah, graduate student, Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics, MIT Robot researchers at MIT, for example, are studying ways robots can learn new tasks simply by observing humans , for instance  setting the dinner table, according to a paper published in IEEE  in February ( DOI: 10.1109/LRA.2020.2977217 ) .   
Researchers compiled a dataset with information about how eight objects—a mug, glass, spoon, fork, knife, dinner plate, small plate, and bowl—could be placed on a table in various configurations. The robot arm observed human demonstrations of setting the table with the objects, then the researchers asked the arm to set the table itself based...