20 March 2015
A novelty talking point, or the future of the service industry? Robotic staff are beginning to take Asia's restaurants by storm, with the Disney inspired, unauthorisedly named "WALL-E" restaurant in China's Anhui province proving particularly popular with customers eager to experience the automaton waiter service first hand.
Each machine costs around $11,000, measures about 3.2ft in height and is powered by rechargeable batteries, navigating its way around the restaurant with the help of an optical sensing system. With near to thirty robots providing cooking, ordering, baking and meal delivery services, owners aim to cut costs and pull in the punters, so is this a sight we're likely to see in the UK and elsewhere around the world any time soon?
" Let's not kid ourselves here, robots already run most of our world. We'll be their butlers soon enough." - Eric Stoltz
The idea of the robot waiter isn't a new one. In 1983 a Chinese restaurant in Pasadena, California hired two intriguing looking machines to deliver trays of food to customers' tables, although they weren't always that reliable, being prone to dropping things and being disabled by interference which made them behave slightly erratically at times. So aside from a talking point experience of having an android deliver our meals, what are the implications of a robot future? What about jobs for us mere humans?
While the owner of the Wall-E restaurant, Mr Zong believes the benefits of his robotic workforce are well worth the investment, helping out employees with a demanding workload and providing high-tech entertainment for customers, surely robot waiters are taking jobs away from flesh and blood members of society who really need them. Can a robot really replace a well-trained server with a full knowledge of the food he or she is presenting? Of course robot waiters don't need tipping, as they're incapable of going the extra mile to provide the "service with a smile" many customers would expect.
With a myriad of applications, it has to be remembered that robots are as vulnerable as any other technology to hacking. A cyber-attack on robotics in industry for example, could disrupt an entire production line, costing millions of pounds in productivity. Whereas a hacked service robot could potentially cause physical injury to a member of the public in a restaurant, or dispense the wrong medication in a care setting.
So, it must remain to be seen whether or not robotic employees are the technological, labour saving tool of the future, carrying out the menial tasks we don't want to, or simply a high-tech novelty that will wear off with the passing of time.
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