This Is the Robotic Chicken Butcher of Our Nightmares

Meet the Gribbot. This automated meat machine might soon be given the precious task of using its carefully calibrated pincers to rip the breast meat from chicken carcasses, phasing out skilled workers at the same time.

Dec 9 2014, 9:19pm

Meet the Gribbot. If you're living in Norway, this automated meat machine might soon be given the precious task of using its carefully calibrated pincers to rip the breast meat from a chicken carcass before gently depositing it with so many others that are destined for low-carb lunch wraps and bland piccatas.

Now, this is not the world's first butchering robot. In addition to the fish filleters common to large-scale fish processing operations, there's also Mayekawa's HAMDAS-R ham-boning robot and the APRICOT (Automated Pinbone Removal In Cod and WhiTefish), which uses X-rays and jets of water to blast out pinbones.

Why automate such a thing? Unlike robots, people's hands are clumsy, sometimes arthritic, and require bi-weekly paychecks. Machines are typically more dependable, and never get bored or have the temerity to leave an hour early to have dinner with their in-laws who are in town from Boca.

Of course, when we think of efficiency like that, we turn to the clean, cold countries of Scandinavia. Along with the APRICOT, the Gribbot was developed by SINTEF, an independent research organization based in Norway. Since fish and poultry processors also happen to be better paid in Scandinavian countries than they are in the US and China, highly efficient machines are even more attractive to companies there than easily fatigued humans. In a press release, Gribbot project lead Ekrem Mismi was quoted as saying, "Our aim is to automate absolutely everything we can think of on the food production line."

This is what that kind of productivity looks like:

Mismi, a "technical cyberneticist with a doctoral degree in machine vision," noted that other roboticists had failed to automate the chicken-butchering process, which requires a sort of three-dimensional "vision" to understand a plucked-and-skinned chicken's rather amorphous anatomy. (The moist and shiny appearance of breast meat confounds typical cameras, making it difficult to capture 3-D images.) The sensors used in the Gribbot are similar to the ones used in Microsoft's Kinect devices, aided by a robotic hand with specially designed fingers for delicately grasping the tender flesh of the breast.

Indeed, it is a marvel of engineering, and a step forward in the ever-evolving and exciting world of modern robotics.

On top of that, the Gribbot is part of SINTEF's CYCLE waste-reduction initiative, aimed at the "total utilization of raw materials in the supply chain for food with a bio-economical perspective." On the face of it, this sounds like a good thing. Maximizing the use of "raw materials"—that is, fish, meat, and vegetables—is better for profits and, in one sense, better for the planet.

Likewise, Nismi explained in the SINTEF press release that the Gribbot will "make better use of the raw materials" for producers. "A flexible grasping tool scrapes the carcass while it is pulling off the fillet, and this removes as much of the meat as possible."

But it should also give us pause. Imagine Big Ag executives watching this video, salivating at the Nijinksy-like fluidity of its mechanized separation of raw muscle fibers, dreaming of PowerPoint presentations with words like BOTTOM LINE and PROFIT and new detached garages for their Texas estates.

Imagine those chickens that the New York Times' Nicholas Kristof wrote about only last week, being removed even further from human hands before they are ultimately meet their fate as faceless, bland protein, stacked in yellow styrofoam trays upon soggy meat diapers.

With zero disrespect intended for Mismi and his team of researchers—he did not return a request for comment by the time of publication—the Gribbot does nothing but exemplify, with exacting and sterile precision, how far removed many of us have become from the living, breathing origins of our animal protein. Slaughter operations are already highly automated, so remote-controlled butchery is the logical next step.

On the one hand, the Gribbot and machines like it could reduce waste—an incredible amount of which stems from meat that is lost, for one reason or another, along the production line. Taking the process out of clumsy human hands would promote replicable, standardized results with each and every breast. It would help ensure that the most nose-to-tail operations in existence are actually the most mechanized.

After all, pink slime was nothing but an attempt to make use of every last bit of the cow.