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Robots Can Soon Replace Waiters – But Not In Another Forty Years

We used to watch it in Star Wars, but who would have thought that we would come to an age where human beings and robots can co-exist?  In 2005, a one-meter tall humanoid was marketed in Japan to serve as hi-tech house helpers or secretaries.  In 2009, Tokyo exhibited a robot called The Motoman who prepares sushi and all other sorts of Japanese food.  And just recently, we got news from South Korea that English classes are being conducted by a Caucasian-looking robot.

Now, here’s the new:  Asia is invading the turf of yet another livelihood — waiting tables.

The past three years saw a rising trend of food serving, apron-clad robots in Japan, Hong Kong, South Korea and mainland China.  And as expected, a mounting discussion transpires regarding the pros and cons of having robots in today’s restaurants.

One of the benefits of having robo-waiters in Asia is restaurant automation.  Other than delivering trays of food and bus tables, robo-waiters can never be wrong with customers’ orders.  They have liberated dining places from the use of menus and menu covers   and have a table-mounted touch-screen attached to their belly that allows them or the diners to tap out their food orders.  That goes to say that computations on billings are as faultless as well as swift, lessening the customer’s waiting time for their check and check presenters to come out.  There are also robots that are outfitted with sensors which allow customers to order food by merely pointing their fingers.  Most of them are equipped with radio frequency identification tags that prevent them from delivering wrong food to the wrong table.  They can’t whine and grumble, and they can be extremely patient with customers’ complaints and sarcasms.

What’s very well expected is that these robots in waiter’s aprons allow restaurants to have high-speed computation that makes its operations exceptionally efficient.  One roboticist in Carnegie Mellon University’s Robotics Institute has invented a system that allows robot-waiters to scan cars in a drive-through lane and forecast how much food each approaching car can order.  It then turns-over its findings to the cooks, who are tasked to cook an accurate quantity of food as the cars go around the parking lot.  The customers’ meals are more freshly cooked. Wastage of unsold, pre-prepared burgers has also been lessened.

However, such advantages do not lessen the initial aversion of the market, similar to the market’s stout hesitance in supporting the rise of ATM banking some 25 years ago.  A lot of drawbacks are seen.  For one, these humanoids can barely hold a conversation.  Personalities are among the human abilities that is hardest to duplicate in robotics, says Illah Nourbakhsh, a professor at Carnegie Mellon.  “The robot can’t do banter or upsell or say,   ‘you’ve got to get this dessert because I had it last week and you’re going to love it,’” he said.   These apron-clad robots, in fact, can hardly converse.  They are not able to answer customers’ queries, and can really be boring.

Another disadvantage is mobility.  Bots might be intelligent than human waiters, but they are far less agile.  Since they only rely on sensors to evade obstacles that come their way, their reflexes are hardly there at all.  They can only slow down or stop to shun possible collision.  “In a busy place with other waitresses moving around and 6-year olds running to the bathroom, “ Nourbakhsh said, “robots have to move slowly and carefully.”  Otherwise, accidents are likely to happen.   Robots turned out to be more expensive than human labor, too.  Two waiter bots can amount to $930,000.

But robot experts are hopeful that eventually, people will accept these technologies in due time.  Henrik Scharfe, associate professor at Denmark’s Aalborg University and director of the Center for Computer Mediated Epistemology said that “eventually most of us will accept these possibilities as an option that we can choose if we want to.”  He believes that continuous research and enhancement of the robo-waiter is being done, and the emergence of more competent robots is relatively near.  When asked how long it will take before society can fully accept this yet another revolutionary change in people lifestyles, Nourbakhsh’s answer was “forty years.”  And that’s still within our lifetime.