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

2 hours ago - Sports

Pac-12 will play football this fall, reversing course

A view of Levi's Stadium during the 2019 Pac-12 Championship football game. Photo: Alika Jenner/Getty Images

The Pac-12, which includes universities in Arizona, California, Colorado, Oregon, Utah and Washington state, will play football starting Nov. 6, reversing its earlier decision to postpone the season because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Why it matters: The conference's about-face follows a similar move by the Big Ten last week and comes as President Trump has publicly pressured sports to resume despite the ongoing pandemic. The Pac-12 will play a seven-game conference football season, according to ESPN.

Dave Lawler, author of World
3 hours ago - World

Global coronavirus vaccine initiative launches without U.S. or China

Data: Gavi, The Vaccine Alliance; Map: Naema Ahmed/Axios

A global initiative to ensure equitable distribution of coronavirus vaccines now includes most of the world — but not the U.S., China or Russia.

Why it matters: Assuming one or more vaccines ultimately gain approval, there will be a period of months or even years in which supply lags far behind global demand. The COVAX initiative is an attempt to ensure doses go where they're most needed, rather than simply to countries that can produce or buy them at scale.

Updated 3 hours ago - Politics & Policy

Coronavirus dashboard

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

  1. Global: Total confirmed cases as of 6:15 p.m. EST: 32,062,182 — Total deaths: 979,701 — Total recoveries: 22,057,268Map.
  2. U.S.: Total confirmed cases as of 6:15 p.m EST: 6,967,103 — Total deaths: 202,558 — Total recoveries: 2,670,256 — Total tests: 97,459,742Map.
  3. Health: Cases are surging again in 22 states — New York will conduct its own review of coronavirus vaccine.
  4. Business: America is closing out its strongest quarter of economic growth.
  5. Technology: 2020 tech solutions may be sapping our resolve to beat the pandemic.
  6. Sports: Here's what college basketball will look like this season.
  7. Science: During COVID-19 shutdown, a common sparrow changed its song.

Get Axios AM in your inbox

Catch up on coronavirus stories and special reports, curated by Mike Allen everyday

Please enter a valid email.

Subscription failed
Thank you for subscribing!