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CaliBurger Launches Flippy the Robot

New automation and the machine learning revolution are coming to a workplace near you

By Glenn Carlyle Smith    MARCH 5, 2018

Mighty Ant client CaliBurger, with partner Miso Robotics, this week launched Flippy, the hamburger flipping robot, now cooking burgers at their flagship Pasadena store:

Read more about Flippy at CaliBurger.com or in its wide coverage in national news — CBS, NPR, TechCrunch, etc.

Flippy is representative of the sort of machine learning that will be taking the world by storm over the next few years. If you thought the internet, and then after that mobile phones, spread and changed the world fast (they did!), just watch as machine learning brings change even faster.

The breakthroughs that make Flippy possible aren't in robotics (his more primitive cousins have helped assemble cars for decades,) but in machine learning and artificial intelligence. And the technological leaps forward in those areas in the past three years have been breathtaking. What is new is that machines can now rapidly learn certain types of tasks on their own, and, at the same time, also now do pattern recognition better than humans in many cases. Put those two together, and you get self-driving cars, Siri and Alexa responding to what you say, advanced systems for managing electricity grids or for drug discovery, and now hamburger flipping robots.

It's been fun this week repeatedly hearing about Flippy in the news without having to seek stories out — they've just shown up in my standard newsfeeds. One of my favorite technology news reporters asked "Is Flippy the Robot just a publicity stunt to bring people in to buy hamburgers?" and answered his own question "Sure!" But, actually, it's not (though the publicity is great!) Flippy is now an economically feasible product, and the technology it uses is getting better, and cheaper, exponentially — while human labor gets steadily more expensive. Right now Flippy doesn't put cheese or other toppings on burgers — but future versions will. And if machine systems can self drive cars, they can probably clean a grill and also eventually cook fries.

Fast food restaurants have used automation for years, but compare those big, bulky automated cooking systems with Flippy. The old automation did one thing, didn't learn, took up more room than a person, and wasn't upgraded to do new things after installation. Flippy, by contrast, works at a station a human can also use, does things that used to require human vision and dexterity, gets smarter as it works, and can be upgraded with over the air software updates to learn new skills. Flippy doesn't just bring new capabilities, it brings dramatically improving capabilities that get better as time goes on.

Flippy's creator Miso Robotics is a startup from a bunch of Caltech folks (my Alma Mater.) Mighty Ant works with a lot of startups. With some we don’t know if the business idea will ever take off, and with others, we know for sure that someone will make the idea work – it’s just a scramble to be the company that pulls it off. Automation like Flippy falls squarely in the second category. Miso has put together some great technology, and the change Flippy heralds is a sure thing. We wish them the best of luck at chasing the amazing opportunity they’re now already shipping a product to address.

BREAKING NEWS UPDATE: Flippy has gone on a break! The launch brought a crush of traffic to CaliBurger Pasadena, and the amount of orders coming in were a bit overwhelming for Flippy and his teammates in their first week together! Miso Robotics is giving Flippy some upgrades (though I'm not sure we should call him "he" -- as one shouldn't anthropomorphize machines -- they don't like it.) CaliBurger's kitchen staff are also going to get some extra training as with their human coworkers they can just talk to coordinate their work -- but Flippy is (currently) the strong silent type so a bit more training is in order for everyone to work smoothly together. Look for an announcement for the triumphant return of Flippy in coming weeks. Don't be misdirected by the little ups and downs as the kinks are worked out with new technology. Flippy and his cousins are coming soon — sooner than most think.

CaliBurger sometimes calls themselves a tech company that sells hamburgers. They use their own growing global restaurant operations as a platform to pioneer and fund new technology startups such as FunWall (interactive gaming for retail), Miso Robotics (the creators of Flippy), POPpacks (backpacks with integrated digital ink displays that talk to your phone), and many others. You can read about some of the work we’ve done for CaliBurger on our home page.

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