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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

45 mins ago - Health

U.S. tops 88,000 COVID-19 cases, setting new single-day record

Expand chart
Data: COVID Tracking Project; Chart: Axios Visuals

The United States reported 88,452 new coronavirus cases on Thursday, setting a single-day record, according to data from the COVID Tracking Project.

The big picture: The country confirmed 1,049 additional deaths due to the virus, and there are over 46,000 people currently being hospitalized, suggesting the U.S. is experiencing a third wave heading into the winter months.

Updated 2 hours ago - Politics & Policy

Coronavirus dashboard

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

  1. Health: Large coronavirus outbreaks leading to high death rates — Coronavirus cases are at an all-time high ahead of Election Day.
  2. Politics: Top HHS spokesperson pitched coronavirus ad campaign as "helping the president" — Space Force's No. 2 general tests positive for coronavirus.
  3. World: Taiwan reaches a record 200 days with no local coronavirus cases.
  4. Sports: MLB to investigate Dodgers player who joined celebration after positive COVID test.
  5. 🎧Podcast: The vaccine race turns toward nationalism.

The norms around science and politics are cracking

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Crafting successful public health measures depends on the ability of top scientists to gather data and report their findings unrestricted to policymakers.

State of play: But concern has spiked among health experts and physicians over what they see as an assault on key science protections, particularly during a raging pandemic. And a move last week by President Trump, via an executive order, is triggering even more worries.

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