More restaurant meals are served in Asia than in any other place on Earth. It seems reasonable then?with a collective 4-billion mouths to feed?that a few enterprising restaurateurs might chance to introduce robots into their food service functions. Huge potential awaits the right bot with the right table skills to make it big in the world?s biggest food service market.
Waiter, oh waiter
If you?ve ever traveled to Japan, China, Thailand, Korea or Vietnam in the past several years or so and eaten in certain restaurants, you may have been a bit surprised to see your food being delivered by a robot rather than a human.
In an industry where owners often compete for workers and continuously try to find ways to operate more efficiently, those owners are forced to somehow cut costs.
Enter the robot waiter. Although each robot waiter can cost thousands or tens of thousands of dollars?upfront?they enable the restaurant owner to save money on salaries not to mention food, because they don?t mess up orders.
Last December, the Dalu Restaurant, a popular 100-seat restaurant in Jinan, China ?hired? six robot food servers?developed by The Shandong Dalu Science and Technology Company?that ride bicycles around a large indoor track built on the perimeter of the restaurant serving drinks and food.
The robot waiters have built-in motion sensors so as not to run over people standing in front of them and so it can stop and allow each diner to take his plate from the robot?s tray. After they serve the guests their meals, the robots go back to the kitchen?yes, people still cook the food?where the trays on their carts are refilled.
In addition, the Dalu Restaurant also ?employs? a robot hostess as well as dancing robots to entertain diners.
At Bangkok University in Thailand, researchers are developing robotic waiters that will take your order then deliver it to your table. The robots are part of the ?MK Robot Project.? MK Restaurant is one the largest and most popular chains in Thailand and has more than 300 locations. In 2009, Thai-based CTAsia Robotics built 10 meet-and-greet robots for MK Restaurant. Those robots, nicknamed Din Sow, cost $30,000 each.
However while cute, Din Sow really couldn?t do much beyond entertaining customers in the lobby, which is why MK Restaurant decided to commission a robot called Yumbo that can carry serving trays and deliver food to customers. To that end, the students at Bangkok University have developed several prototype bots running on Linux.
Like Din Sow, Yumbo moves on wheels, following lines on the floor and it appears to use an ultrasonic range detection sensor to avoid obstacles. Yumbo meets and welcomes customers with one of its many expressions. The robot then takes orders using voice recognition technology.
Then there?s ?Topio Dio,? Vietnam?s first waiter robot developed by Tosy Robotics JSC. Created as a service robot, the robot is also a skillful bartender. Topio is controlled via Wi-Fi connectivity for remote control over the web and features 28 joints and three wheels, as well as a built-in camera and obstacle sensor.
The benefits for restaurant owners are obvious. For one thing, robot waiters help owners cut staffing costs. For another the robots won?t complain about getting tired or that their tip wasn?t big enough. And they probably have better attitudes than a lot of people. Not to mention that ordering errors are eliminated.
But a couple questions remain: Will the novelty outweigh the inevitable customer frustration? Customers may not be too happy because the robots don?t move very fast. And will the novelty outweigh the apparent inefficiency? Some of these mechanized bots can only carry one plate at a time.
The short answer is well, maybe. If it gets easier and cheaper for companies to develop more sophisticated robot waiters and it gets easier for restaurants to buy them less expensively?giving them a competitive edge in the market?then it makes sense for those restaurants to buy them.
Devendra Garg, Head of Robotics Laboratory, Duke University, isn?t quite sure robot waiters are here to stay.
?In China, Japan, Korea and Thailand they have set up shops where people can punch in their choices and the robot then goes to the kitchen and gets the cooked food?the cooking is still done by humans and in most of these situations, these robots have fixed guide ways on which they move,? he said. ?But there?s no real interaction between the humans and the robots because people have already punched in what their choices are and the robots bring the food to that particular station and the people pick their own food.?
Garg said right now robot waiters are ?kind of a novelty.? But restaurant owners hope that they can reduce the number of human waiters or maybe practically eliminate them and use these mechanized robots, which will probably be more efficient than the humans.
?Humans talk with customers. However, the people ask the robot what the chef?s specialty is but the robot doesn?t have a clue,? Garg said. ?The novelty will wear off eventually.?
Does Garg think robot waiters could make it big in the U.S.
In a word, no?at least not in the near future.
?In the U.S. when we go to a restaurant we more or less think of it as a social kind of setting,? he said. ?We go for the ambiance, for what the Zagat ranking is and what dish is done best by what chef. And then we sit there and enjoy the ambiance. We talk to our friends and no one is in a big rush. We don?t just go to a restaurant to eat. It?s a cultural difference. And if the waiter is there and he delivers good service he deserves a bigger tip than if he delivers poorer service.?
In the U.S. it?s quite far off for waiters to interact with humans, Garg said.
?And so far all the companies that build them are in Asia,? he said. ?Not only that but no one in the U.S. is too excited about them.?
Henrik Scharfe, associate professor at Denmark’s Aalborg University, believes the dawn of more competent waiter bots is relatively near. ?Waiters and patrons already follow a well-worn script, he said, “with a pattern of communication that is very predictable. At first, such technologies may put people off. But eventually most of us accept these possibilities.?Read More