Monday, December 19, 2016

Open the Pizzeria Bay Doors, HAL

Zume offers human pizza makers retraining as robot partners take over

With the release of Rogue I, I got to thinking about robots…and pizza. I haven’t seen anybody eat pizza in that Galaxy far, far away, but I assume the Universe’s most popular dish has to be on the Cantina menu where Han used to hang out with his freaky pals. So C3PO and R2D2 are cute and helpful and all, but the sci fi nightbots of my scary dreams download more like the bad cop terminator with the morphing pointer impaler in TII; or maybe those nasty bug-looking contraptions in The Matrix that burrowed into Morpheus’ hovercraft and Neo’s navel.

My future vision is definitely right-brain framed, so I tend to share Will Smith’s skepticism in I, Robot about his nemeses’ suitability to write symphonies, paint masterpieces and craft a really good pizza.

Julia Collins and her human business partner Alex Garden are the owners of Zume Pizza, a Silicon Valley startup that’s likely the first pizzeria in the world to partner humans with pizza-making robots. The pizzabots at Zume don’t really look like their movie star cousins. They don’t roll around the workspace warning, “Danger, Will Robinson!” They’re more like seamless, functional machines-in-motion, spreading pizza sauce evenly or hoisting dough with mechanical limbs to the tune of 288 pizzas an hour for delivery by oven-equipped trucks in an average of under 15 minutes.

Bot friendly Collins doesn’t see her automated pizzaioli as Robot Overlords. “We’re a co-bot environment,” she says, noting that, for now, Zume still employs humans. Air breathers, it turns out, are still too good at one vital pizza activity to hand over full control to their botmates. Humans hand-place toppings like pepperonis, mushrooms and peppers nice and pretty. But despite their aesthetic shortfalls, and limitations in other interpersonal pursuits like chatting up customers, robots have apparently advanced enough for Zume to schedule the Mountain View, California store for full automation in 2017. Zume’s ‘shrooms—and even their sausages and stuff—will be handed over to the pincers of hotbot pizza chefs with cool, friendly names like Bruno, Jojo, Pepe, Marta and Vincenzo.

To be fair, in an era when some fast food executives are threatening to automate traditional workers out of a job over minimum wage worries, Collins and Garden remain pro human: 1. They’re all about serving their nutrient-fueled customers great-tasting pizza with top-quality ingredients at an ever-quickening pace. 2. They’ve promised the roughly 30 flesh-and-blood Zumers, their jobs are safe. As the Mountain View site goes fullbotic and Zume zooms ahead on its way to San Jose and other Bay area delivery hubs, displaced human pizza makers will learn new skills in areas like tech support, engineering or web design. “We give them an opportunity to keep growing,” say Collins, a Stanford Business School grad and former analyst at Shake Shack. She adds: “Since the industrial revolution, the American workforce has been adapting to the advent of new technologies. The important thing is — for those who’ve chosen to be at the leading edge of automation, as we have — how can we think responsibly about our obligation to the people that come work for us?”

Zume is putting actions where its obligation is, offering carbon-based employees tuition subsidies, teaching-English-as-a-second-language opportunities and even some volunteers a chance to go to graphic design school. One Tweeter, whom I’m guessing never mastered InDesign, ain’t buying it: “Future story: Zume closes! No one can afford to buy pizza after losing jobs to automation.”

Still, automation, in balance, has surely improved the lives and economics of most people on Planet Earth, if not the entire Federation of Planets. And yes, I like my computer, even if I only use it to write and read and Siri and Alexa do remind me of 2001’s HAL in training. Balance IS always the ticket! That’s why I must agree with the CEO whose cutting-edge outfit has, ironically, pioneered the push to automate pizza ordering and delivery. Patrick Doyle, Domino's CEO, says “There is magic in hand-crafted pizza.” What?

I’ve interviewed dozens of elite pizza chef—all born to mothers and not created in labs. They might not be big Domino’s fans, but they fully back Doyle’s statement. Pizza maestros like Lee Hunzinger, Guilio Adriani and Gennaro Luciano, whose family basically invented the modern pizzeria in the 19th Century back in Milan, are on the same page. They attest passionately that love, training and mentorship—human interaction built upon years of attempts, successes and yes, failures—are the only reliable ingredients in pizza perfection. My friend, U.S. Pizza Team Lead Culinary Consultant Gino Rago, owner of Panino’s Pizzeria in Chicago, defines these terms in the original old-school Italian: “Passione and Fantasia.” The first translation of “fantasia” in the Italian-to-English dictionary is:

1. Music: A composition in fanciful or irregular form.

Maybe Will Smith got it right in that unsettling movie preview of our robotic destiny run amok. And maybe crafting memorable pizza and pizzeria experiences is more art than science. But then again, I’m a right-brain guy.