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Zuckerberg Media sees role for AI...in the kitchen

The company founded by New York Times best-selling author Randi Zuckerberg sees a place for STEM and AI in the restaurant industry. It also believes such a venture can bring tech to smaller communities.

There's a mainstream fear that AI will negatively impact communities removed and disenfranchised from the tech economy and the tech revolution. But what if there were a way to flip that feared phenomenon around, and turn tech into an ally? Would that idea be naive, and pursuit of it a quixotic mission? Or could it be that technology might empower those threatened communities if they could have more access to it, and real facilitation in gaining comfort and competency with it?

Randi Zuckerberg, Founder and CEO of Zuckerberg Media, and Jim Augustine, her COO, both feel strongly that the brighter forecast has real efficacy.

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Randi Zuckerberg
Credit: Zuckerberg Media

The company is perhaps best known for Ms. Zuckerberg's Sirius XM show, Dot Complicated, as well as a book and television franchise called Dot, designed to make technology appealing to young girls. In general, Zuckerberg Media is dedicated to making technology and science accessible and exciting to people who it might otherwise pass by. This applies not just to girls but also to people who have been on the wrong side of digital divide.

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Jim Augustine
Credit: Zuckerberg Media

Take the tram to the tech
Zuckerberg Media's latest venture, Sue's Tech Kitchen (STK), is focused on building a functioning restaurant in which technology takes on many tasks heretofore assigned to humans. The project started as a traveling pop-up experience, which my children and I experienced over the holidays, while it occupied a temporary home at the new Cornell Tech campus on New York City's Roosevelt Island.

The food operation we encountered featured fun applications of tech, including 3D printed logo-shaped pancakes and s'mores. Other stations involved machine-assisted cotton candy making and a liquid nitrogen experiment. The pop-up was a nice showcase for the notion of mashing up food with science, technology and math.

But in an interview subsequent to my family's visit to the STK pop-up, Zuckerberg and Augustine explained that they see it going much further.

CRM for dining
Customer Relationship Management is a big area where machine intelligence could be embedded in a restaurant's operation -- not just in the Salesforce and Dynamics sense, but even extending to keeping track of customers' previous orders and using that data to provide recommendations and customized menus.

Menus could also be customized according to prior knowledge of customers' food allergies -- which would alleviate a lot of the stress some families encounter when dining out and, in so doing, likely enhance sales. In our conversation, Zuckerberg, herself a mom of two, clearly empathized with that idea.

Predictive kitchen
But how about real hard-core predictive analytics...is there any role for that? Yes, as it turns out. Zuckerberg and Augustine pointed out to me that the restaurant business is cyclical, that demand can vary at different times of the year, the week and the day, with weather being a factor as well.

Accordingly, there's a role for AI at a restaurant, to help predict demand, and govern the preparation and production of certain foods, and the procurement of various ingredients, in terms of volume and timing. And, of course, in a mechanized kitchen, predictive maintenance is important too. All of this can, in turn, increase efficiency, lower costs and even lower prices for customers.

Robot non-overlords
There's a role for robots in the kitchen, too. But Zuckerberg and Augustine explained to me that rather than reducing human headcount, the robots are instead enabling people to work in less tedious, more creative roles in the restaurant operation.

Combined with Zuckerberg's intention to open a permanent restaurant, not in New York or San Francisco, but in a smaller US community, it's clear the goal with STK is to spread the benefits of tech, rather than hoard them.

Citizen AI?
I spend a lot of time online, writing about data and machine learning technology. I also spend time offline wondering about the technology's impact on the economy and how the profession can be more inclusive. Does Sue's Tech Kitchen address these concerns? Is a technologized restaurant more entrepreneurial than societally beneficial?

When my kids and I went to the STK pop-up, we saw a pretty diverse group of other kids there, and the level of excitement seemed high, consistently across them all. Ms. Zuckerberg told me that her company is playing the long game. She said if kids reach the age of 8 or 9 without getting exposure to tech, they may turn off to it. Conversely, get young kids of all different backgrounds excited in tech now, and in 20 years the industry may have a very different makeup.

Will STK galvanize such a sea change? Maybe the more important thing is that it's setting a business-driven, positive example. And with its founder an alumna of the boys club that is Silicon Valley, Zuckerberg Media exhibits a clear passion for change that would seem a harbinger to success.