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Serving food at Hema. GIF via Alibaba video

Select some live seafood in one of Alibaba's Hema grocery stores in Shanghai, get it rung up and bagged, and a robotic arm will whisk it away to a kitchen. Minutes later, a pod will wheel out of the kitchen, pulling up to your table with your meal under a transparent dome.

What's going on: A raised highway of robot pods has replaced human waitstaff in an already high-tech Hema — with humans mostly left to the greeting and cooking.

The big picture: Robot food runners may seem like a gimmick to get diners through the door. But if they become commonplace, it will be because high labor costs make them more cost-efficient than living, breathing waiters.

The context: In some cities around the world, waitstaff are expensive enough that they've been done away with, turning even nicer restaurants into Chipotle-style cafeterias where diners order at a counter, grab utensils, and bus their own table.

Some are going entirely robotic:

  • JD.com, Alibaba's main e-c0mmerce competitor, says that next month, it will open a fully automated restaurant, staffed with no human cooks or servers, reports Daisuke Harashima of Nikkei Asian Review. By 2020, it will operate about 1,000 of them, JD says.
  • The company — fiercely competing with Alibaba — has already taken the lead in commercial robotization with a wholly automated warehouse staffed with just four humans, all of whom service the robots.

But, but, but: In most cases, humans are still part of the equation. The automated Hema experience, for instance, still includes frail mortals welcoming customers, explaining the ordering system, taking payment, and — crucially — cooking the food.

Go deeper

Democrat Mark Kelly sworn in to U.S. Senate

Photo: Courtney Pedroza/Getty Images

Astronaut Mark Kelly (D) was sworn in to the U.S. Senate on Wednesday after defeating incumbent Sen. Martha McSally (R-Ariz.) last month for the seat once held by the late Sen. John McCain.

Why it matters: Kelly's swearing-in by Vice President Mike Pence narrows the Republican majority and moves the Senate balance to 52-48.

Senate Armed Services chair dismisses Trump threat to veto defense bill

Sen. Jim Inhofe. Photo: Anna Moneymaker/Pool/AFP via Getty Images

Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.), chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee, told reporters Wednesday that he plans to move ahead with a crucial defense-spending bill without provisions that would eliminate tech industry protections, defying a veto threat from President Trump.

Why it matters: Inhofe's public rebuke signals that the Senate could have enough Republican backing to override a potential veto from Trump, who has demanded that the $740 billion National Defense Authorization Act repeal Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act.

Scoop: Uber in talks to sell air taxi business to Joby

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Uber is in advanced talks to sell its Uber Elevate unit to Joby Aviation, Axios has learned from multiple sources. A deal could be announced later this month.

Between the lines: Uber Elevate was formed to develop a network of self-driving air taxis, but to date has been most notable for its annual conference devoted to the nascent industry.

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