But at Spyce, the latest culinary experiment in automation, that debate feels pretty well settled.
Started by a group of 20-something robotics engineers from Massachusetts Institute of Technology who partnered with Michelin-starred chef Daniel Boulud, the new restaurant in downtown Boston is founded on the idea that a fulfilling meal can be more science than spontaneity.
The restaurant's founders have replaced human chefs with seven automated cooking pots that simultaneously whip up meals in three minutes or less. A brief description of meal preparation - courtesy of 26-year-old co-founder, Michael Farid - can sound more like laboratory instructions than conventional cooking.
"Once you place your order, we have an ingredient delivery system that collects them from the fridge," Farid said. "The ingredients are portioned into the correct sizes and then delivered to a robotic wok, where they are tumbled at 450 degrees Fahrenheit. The ingredients are cooked and seared. And once the process is complete, the woks tilt downward and put food into a bowl. And then they're ready to be garnished and served."
Spyce bills itself as "the world's first restaurant featuring a robotic kitchen that cooks complex meals," a distinction that appears to reference burger-flipping robots like "Flippy," who plied his trade in a California fast food kitchen before being temporary suspended - because he wasn't working fast enough.
A prototype of Spyce's robotic chef was first assembled in the basement of the co-founders' fraternity house at MIT.
The restaurant's dining experience actually begins a few steps before the robots get involved, when customers create customized, compostable bowls that cost $7.50 using colorful touch-screens. Heavy on vegetables and healthy grains, the bowls include a calorie count and have themes such as Latin, Thai, Mediterranean and Hearth.
While meals are cooked, the customer's name appears on an electronic display above their wok, showing their order. Once finished, hot water jets rinse the inside of woks before another collection of ingredients is dumped inside. Farid said they decided to place the robotic chefs out in the open to remove any lingering mystery.
"We didn't want to create a black box that produces a meal," Farid said. "We wanted this experience to be exciting."
That motto is one that the restaurant industry is beginning to adopt as a whole, experts say. Restaurants across the country already incorporate automated technology, such as "self-service ordering" and "robotic servers," according to a report last year by the McKinsey Global Institute.
The report concluded that jobs that involve "predictable physical activities" - such as cooking or serving food, cleaning kitchens, collecting dirty dishes and preparing beverages - are the most susceptible to automation.
"According to our analysis, 73 percent of the activities workers perform in food service and accommodations have the potential for automation, based on technical considerations," the report said.
Because the industry's human labor tends to be lower paid, robots cooks have yet to be adopted, the report said. As the technology becomes cheaper and more widespread, however, that could change.
Spyce employs multiple people, a detail that the restaurant's founders are quick to emphasize when they explain their concept. There's a friendly "guide" to assist customers with ordering and to ask about your day, according to Farid. Humans prep the food overnight and the restaurant also employs a "garde manger" (French for "keeper of the food") whose job is to add touches like pumpkin seeds, cilantro and crumbled goat cheese before meals are served.
Farid said the robots add efficiency and lower operating costs, but he declined to say by how much. He said he sees the robots enhancing the dining experience, not replacing it, but declined to speculate on whether Spyce is opening the floodgates of a job-killing robot revolution.
"Our restaurant is really efficient because people focus on what people are good at, but the robot handles the high volume tasks - like the cooking and washing - that robots are good at," he said. "At the end of the day, our product is not a technology product - it's an experience and a delicious meal."
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