breaking news

I-675 wrong-way crash: What we know about the victims

Salad-making robot may cut germs, and jobs


Salad bars are magnets for bacteria and viruses. Even if the sprouts and ranch dressing aren’t tainted, the serving utensils could be.

The Silicon Valley startup Chowbotics has devised what it says is a partial solution. Its device, which it calls Sally the Salad Robot, is aimed at reducing the risk of food-borne illness by assembling salads out of precut vegetables stored in refrigerated canisters.

Diners use a touch screen to place their orders, choosing from a menu of recipes or designing their own salads. The machine calculates the number of calories per salad and drops the veggies into a bowl in less than a minute. There is less human contact with the food.

But as a growing number of food- and drink-slinging robots have begun interacting with diners in the San Francisco Bay Area, Deepak Sekar, the device’s inventor and the founder and chief executive of Chowbotics, has faced questions about whether his machine will put people out of work. He denies that will happen.

Sekar insists that his company’s focus — which is on the salad bar market instead of restaurants more broadly — means Sally won’t be a job killer.

He says workers at salad bars could restock the robot, which holds enough ingredients for 50 salads before it needs to be refilled. And, he says, restaurants can continue with their usual food preparation methods — relying on kitchen workers to do the chopping or buying precut vegetables.

In offices, the gadget could be a source of new jobs, Sekar says.

“You’re going to get fresh food in, and you’re actually creating jobs for people who refill the canisters in these offices,” he said.

Nonetheless, robot-induced unemployment is a mounting concern. Bill Gates recently made a case for taxing companies that own robots, which could delay their implementation and provide some money to retrain people whose jobs are lost. The San Francisco board of supervisors is considering a so-called robot tax.

“We could be looking at over 50 percent of jobs disappearing in the United States over the next 10 to 15 years,” said Jane Kim, a San Francisco supervisor.

“And it’s not jobs going abroad, or offshoring of jobs. It’s robots.”

There is evidence that automation can have a devastating effect on employment. Commercial robots have already begun to eliminate jobs, according to a Massachusetts Institute of Technology-Boston University study published in March. Researchers analyzed the effects of industrial robots on local labor markets in the United States from 1990 to 2007, and estimated that adding one robot per 1,000 workers has led to unemployment for up to six workers and has caused a decrease in wages by up to 0.50 percent.

Some unions are discussing their own strategies for contending with a robot-clogged future.

“It’s something our union and many unions are still studying,” said Ian Lewis, research director for Unite Here Local 2, a union that represents hotel, food service, restaurant and laundry workers in San Francisco and San Mateo, California. “We’re absolutely concerned and trying to grapple with it.”

Whatever their effect on employment, new robots are on the way. Sekar, an inventor with a doctorate in electronics and computer engineering, said he came up with the idea of building a kitchen robot while working as director of engineering for a semiconductor company.

Although he loved cooking at home, he said he craved a way of reducing the work involved.

“I was spending 90 percent of my time doing something sadly repetitive, like chopping ingredients or stirring,” Sekar said. He wanted to automate those tasks, much as vacuuming can be delegated to Roomba, iRobot’s robotic vacuum. Soon, he switched his focus to food-service robots for restaurants and offices.

Sekar said his robot has the potential to save money for small businesses that install it in office kitchens alongside appliances such as coffee machines.

Walking a couple of minutes within a building to a salad-tossing robot instead of venturing outside for lunch would mean shorter work breaks and increased productivity, he said. He calls Sally “the smallest and most affordable cafeteria an office can have.”

The robot is being tested in the office of the Redwood City, California, technology incubator GSVlabs and at Calafia Café and Market A Go-Go, a restaurant in Palo Alto, California, with an attached market owned by Charlie Ayers, who is the Chowbotics executive chef.

This fall, Chowbotics will begin fulfilling orders for 10 robots, priced at $30,000 each, Sekar said. He envisions his robots producing healthy meals in convenience stores, airports, hotels, hospitals and universities.

“You’re seeing the momentum of Silicon Valley behind it,” Sekar said. So far, Chowbotics has raised $6.3 million in venture funding from various investors.

For recipes, Sekar turned to Ayers, the former head chef of Google who also has cooked for members of the Grateful Dead. “There’s a lot of passion in what I do creating flavors that will come out of the machines,” Ayers said.

For instance, he said he has devised a menu for an office robot that can serve salads with South Asian ingredients.

Still, Ayers says other chefs have criticized him. “Many of my colleagues in the industry are like, ‘What are you doing to us? You’re going to the machines?'” Ayers said.

He responds that he is helping to create jobs because these robots will always need to be filled, maintained and cleaned by people.

“There are going to be logistics companies, cleaning companies, service companies, robot repair companies,” Ayers said. “Human interaction with Sally is not going away.”

If Chowbotics succeeds with salads, Sekar hopes to expand to other cuisines and admits that human workers could then be displaced.

“We’re going to go after other types of food,” he said. “It’s hard to tell what will happen in the future and how this all might impact jobs.”


Reader Comments ...


Next Up in Food & Dining

This Friday is the LAST Yellow Cab Food Truck Rally of the season
This Friday is the LAST Yellow Cab Food Truck Rally of the season

Dry your tears -- you still have one more huge event to celebrate your favorite food trucks.  The last Yellow Cab Food Truck Rally of the season will be held from 5-10 p.m. on Friday, Oct. 20.  The event will feature an eclectic mix of gourmet food trucks, free live music and local craft beers.  Featured Food Trucks: - Ramen Rickshaw...
FOOD DEAL: How to get a free milkshake on Oct. 18 in Dayton
FOOD DEAL: How to get a free milkshake on Oct. 18 in Dayton

If you’re a milkshake fan, you’re in luck. MOD Pizza, located at 5225 Cornerstone N. Blvd., Centerville, is giving away FREE vanilla milkshakes on Wednesday, Oct. 18, according to a Facebook event. No purchase is necessary, but you must follow MOD Pizza on social media to receive the deal. You can follow them on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram...
Many veterans go hungry - and VA's new plan to fix it
Many veterans go hungry - and VA's new plan to fix it

When Greg Stegall left the Navy at 30 years old, he found himself utterly adrift: a single dad with no degree, no clear plans for the future and a short résumé in a down job market. Struggling to find work, Stegall put his son in a boarding school for poor children and asked his parents for money and food. Nearly 30 years later, Stegall...
Wildfires sweep across the 'face of the California wine industry'
Wildfires sweep across the 'face of the California wine industry'

Adam Lee walked for miles through a wildfire-ravaged neighborhood in Santa Rosa, California, that looked like a "nuclear zone" to see whether his winery had withstood the huge, fast-moving wildfires sweeping through the area. When Lee emerged from the ash and the smoke, he learned he had been lucky: Siduri Wines was one of the few buildings...
Breastfeeding reduces breast cancer risk
Breastfeeding reduces breast cancer risk

Breast cancer seems to have touched everyone in one way or another -- whether a relative or friend or yourself. I'm thankful my mom is a two-time survivor. To mark National Breast Cancer Month in October, the American Institute of Cancer Research highlights a finding from its recent report -- mothers who breastfeed have lower risk of breast cancer...
More Stories