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Chinese Restaurants Fire Robot Servers, Forestalling Robot Apocalypse


Not all the robots got fired. This one is serving dishes in a restaurant in Shenyang, China, on March 15, 2016. Integrated with sensors, navigation hardware and user interface technology, this 140-centimeter (4.6 foot) tall robot is able to hold and se... Zhang Wenkui/Xinhua Press/Corbis
Not all the robots got fired. This one is serving dishes in a restaurant in Shenyang, China, on March 15, 2016. Integrated with sensors, navigation hardware and user interface technology, this 140-centimeter (4.6 foot) tall robot is able to hold and se... Zhang Wenkui/Xinhua Press/Corbis

As a Westerner who doesn't speak Mandarin or Cantonese, I've encountered more than a few communication challenges in mainland Chinese restaurants. There was the time I accidentally ordered a soup-cauldron-for-one in Guangzhou, or the time a server at a grill in Nanning took away my wailing son to show him the fish tanks in the kitchen. I wasn't sure I'd actually get him back, but hey, we worked it out. Because, despite the language differences, we were all intuitive human beings.

But what if the servers had been robots? What sort of soup excess and child-snatching drama might have ensued?

It's not an unrealistic question given that Japan, South Korea, Hong Kong and mainland China are all actively experimenting with robot waiters — an experiment that most recently made headlines when three Guangzhou eateries terminated their entire robotic waitstaffs. That's not an insignificant number, considering that one of the restaurants had as many as 10 robots working for it, reports Nate Smith in the Digital Journal.

The problems didn't achieve a "destroy all humans" level of worry, but the bots constantly failed at such basic waiting tasks as order-taking and beverage-pouring. The novelty factor succeeded in attracting customers, but beyond that it was all soggy laps and unwanted servings of beef chow fun.

Robots manage quite well within the framework of closed systems and repetitive tasks. An assembly line robot installs the same parts in the same place all day — and maybe all night. Your Roomba maps the room and navigates around obstacles, but it's still dealing with a very controlled environment. However, the restaurant environment offers far more variables, and that's not even factoring in the value of a charming human server who can upsell the customer on drink specials.

NPR reported on the rising pan-Asian trend of robot servers back in 2011, highlighting some of the challenges and advantages fostered by the robot waiter revolution. On one hand, robotic workers are cheaper (after the initial hefty purchase cost that is) and more dependable, provided the human masters properly define their role. In that same NPR story, roboticist Henrik Scharfe even stated that, given the standard communicative script of ordering in a restaurant, a robot actually has a mechanized leg up on the task. We follow a script each time we sit down for a meal, so why can't a robot learn to follow that script as well? Roboticist Illah Nourbakhsh, however, predicted that effective robotic servers were still a good 40 years off and that "the idea will come and fail."

So is that where we are? The fail point in the robot restaurant revolution? Only time will tell. Kitchen-based robots continue to amaze attendees at Tokyo's annual International Food Machinery and Technology Exhibition, and a lot of us still WANT to live in a world where an enlightened machine shows us to our table. In a pre-singularity world, however, we may have to leave the more complicated tasks, especially fish-based child calming, to the humanoids.