Survey of Transformers reveals that business leaders are prioritizing AI investment

  • As part of Business Insider's Transforming Business series, we surveyed 53 of the Transformers to gain insights on their leadership strategies, goals for the future, and important challenges ahead.
  • Nearly half of the people surveyed see AI and the cloud as a top driver of transformation that they will invest in during 2021.
  • The pandemic has caused companies to embrace AI-driven automation for many new tasks, like robots that cook hamburgers.
  • AI is helping companies make faster, more informed decisions. They can "collaborate, communicate, and contribute" as a result.
  • The underpinnings of AI – like cleaning data and moving data to the cloud for analysis – are not trivial.
  • Visit Business Insider's Transforming Business homepage for more stories.

There aren't many places that are harder to social distance in than the kitchen of a burger joint. However, that's not an issue for a hard-working fry cook named "Flippy." The robotic grilling assistant is paving the way for greater use of artificial intelligence and cloud technology in the restaurant industry. 

Don't let the name fool you, though. Flippy does a lot more than just flip patties. The robot also analyzes how many orders are in the queue. It times the cooking of the burgers and fries, so everything comes out exactly when an Uber Eats driver arrives to pick them up.

"When the pandemic began, we froze and got nervous," said Buck Jordan, founder of Pasadena, CA-based Miso Robotics, which makes Flippy. "But then demand exploded. Social distancing in a confined space like a kitchen is almost impossible. People realized they needed automation immediately."

Restaurants aren't alone in embracing game-changing AI technology. According to a Business Insider survey of 53 leaders featured in the Transforming Business series, AI and the cloud is the second top driver of transformation that companies will invest in during 2021. It's on the agenda of 47% of those surveyed.

With workers needing to stay home or stay apart, the pandemic has showcased the need for AI-driven automation in kitchens, warehouses, and other places that have traditionally depended on many human workers. "There is more data available than ever before, and that can provide more insights than ever before," Jordan said. The power of the cloud to crunch the massive data that AI needs is leading to remarkable technology improvements.  

Consider Flippy. With 3D and thermal scanners for eyes and a cloud-connected AI for a brain, it can make all the little decisions that come instantly to humans but have been difficult for robots to emulate. "Flippy is gamifying in its head how and when to cook," Jordan said. "There is a ton of decision-making going on in Flippy's brain." 

AI allows Flippy to identify objects in front of it, rather than needing to have them lined up. Flippy knows when to use a spatula to flip burgers and tongs to grip the handle of the fryer basket. It can prepare 19 different foods, including chicken wings and onion rings. The robot can even make the Impossible Burger, which is tricky to grill to perfection.

Fortunately, AI also allows Flippy to learn from its mistakes. Food becomes more consistent over time, reducing costly waste.  That's not the only advance in the technology. The original incarnation of Flippy was a cart on wheels. Jordan tweaked the design so restaurants could use an upside-down robotic arm that was mounted onto a rail. That opened additional floor space and gave human workers more room. 

In many industries, AI is powering not only robots and devices, but decision-making. Jimmy Kim, cofounder of the Seoul-based global accelerator and venture capital fund SparkLabs, says information and artificial intelligence are keys to helping companies "communicate, collaborate, and contribute" in a time of limited personal interaction. "When sales are dropping, people need to make faster and more informed decisions," he said. "AI can help with that." 

Targeted use of AI – such as Flippy – resonates with Kim. "Artificial Intelligence isn't like 'Lord of the Rings' where there will be one ring for everyone," he said. "Everyone will have to fine-tune the technology to their specific needs." Sparkslab has worked with startups that use AI technology for purposes as diverse as managing documents and improving agricultural yield through better soil management.

That said, Kim thinks AI is too often looked on as a panacea. Kim says companies sometimes underestimate the difficulty of the behind-the-scenes stuff, like cleaning their data and migrating it to the cloud for analysis.

AI practitioners understand the challenges, but they aren't daunted by them. Flippy was born when a friend told Jordan it was impossible to build a robot that could flip a burger. They made a bet on that prediction. Fast forward to this July: White Castle, the country's first fast-food restaurant chain, launched a pilot with Flippy, as it reexamined its business practices in light of Covid-19. 

"When we introduced Flippy, a lot of people thought it was a gimmick," Jordan said. "Now one of our customers is the chain that invented the fast food industry 100 years ago. That's what I call transformation."

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