Robots Conquer Local Restaurants

The future is coming, creeping up slowly like the robots found in a growing number of Chinese cities. Are they on track for world domination? Our resident robot expert finds out.

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Courtesy of Universal Pictures.

I was intrigued when asked to check out Dongguan’s first robot-employing restaurant. When I was in the U.S., I’d dabbled in combat robotics—everything from a couple of small “insect-class” bots to getting in the way while more competent team members assembled a 120-pound “middleweight” bot. Sometimes I would emcee the fights. Also, being a slacker (I mean, person interested in new technology), I owned a few robotic lawnmowers and floor cleaners.

Looking forward to seeing bots in action, I arrived at Zui Zhu Xuan Organic Restaurant (Organic? We’ll come back to that) between meals, but things seemed normal, too normal. There were the tanks of fish common to Guangdong restaurants, private rooms and a good sized dining area. There were also plenty of employees, quite a few of which looked like wait staff.

Then I discovered the tracks. Black magnetic strips ran down the center of each extra-wide aisle and split off marching toward each table in pedestrian order. There were robots somewhere nearby.

One question down, so many to go. What kept them on the track? How were they deployed? How much of a real waitress’s job could they do? What if one of the bots got a little out of alignment with its guidance? Would she deliver food to the wrong table and end up pushing her way through a table that was, in her view of the floor plan, in the wrong place?

Tracing the track, I spotted the bot girls with a touch screen on the wall just behind. I was guessing that it was a smaller version of Robo-Cop’s support station. I was right. The staff tapped the main controller a few times and off they went.

When the targeted table was reached, the waitress would turn and halt. Once stopped, it takes a key press either on the control unit or on the back to get her to finish the circuit and return to the front of the kitchen. The double-stacked trays for holding food are bolted on and the arms don’t move. This means that a human handler also goes out to transfer the food onto the table and send the waitress back to her start point.

Man vs. Machine

0715_D&DI needed to know what would happen if human and robot ended up on a collision course. Top speed was a slow walk, about as fast as my robomowers. I decided to throw myself into the path of one of them. As she approached, she slowed and gave some sort of warning, but there was too much background noise. Even if my Mandarin had been better I couldn’t be sure if she said, “Please, kindly allow me to pass so I may continue my mission of serving food,” or, “Step aside or be crushed!”

At great personal risk, I stopped backing away and stood my ground (while trying not to think about Terminators, Berserkers or Daleks). Unlike the last time I was near a bot this size—she’s 160 centimeters tall and weighs in at 80 kilograms—she didn’t have any obvious weapons (then again, some of the combat bots I’ve seen didn’t bring out the weapons until it was too late to run). She kept advancing, but stopped just short of touching me.

So far, the good thing is that my new fembot friends don’t seem to be of the “Kill All Humans!” variety. No saw blades, hammers, or anything else to remove me from her path, piece by bloody piece. The bad news is that they are more into bringing food near tables than full scale waitressing. The next test required me to return in a few hours to see how they would handle themselves during a meal.

Fit to Serve

With my wife and sis-in-law in tow, I returned that evening. Since I wanted to get their unguarded reactions, I neglected to mention the special staff. Both were surprised and delighted by the charming synthetic additions to the wait staff. Getting photos proved more difficult than I anticipated. Dozens of others rushed up to do the same thing each time one or both waitresses were out.

0715_D&D2Floor captain Wang Fengling told us that the Zui Zhu Xuan Organic Restaurant (which she says really is organic) opened in August 2012. It’s privately owned with another branch in Huangjiang Town and the robitic waitresses were installed in December 2014. The one in Dongcheng has a pair, but the branch in Huangjiang only has one.

How hard would you guess it would be to operate a robowaitress? It turns out the operation is surprisingly simple. Place the food on the trays. Go to the master control panel; select waitress 1 or 2 and press the table number. There’s a small control panel on the back of each bot which can also be used to dispatch them to tables.

The human wait staff aren’t in any danger of losing their jobs (yet). Someone still has to load the trays with food and someone else must unload them when they arrive at the table. The robowaitresses were slowed by all the people taking photos and there’s an additional safety feature I didn’t know about. If there is any firm contact with a robowaitress, she stops and needs a manual restart.

Add in the children running around pushing at each of the robowaitresses, and each trip around the room took a very long time. In the end, the vast majority of dishes were brought to the tables by the live waitresses. Sadly, this included all the dishes brought to my table.

Ms. Wang said the robots have had a positive effect on business. The restaurant spent absolutely nothing on advertising. One day there were no bots. The next day diners got a big surprise. Since then, it’s been purely word of mouth and press coverage. I was there on a Wednesday evening and had to wait for a table even though I had a reservation.

Message from the Creator

A minor break in the magnetic guide strip (above) has no effect on the mission, which is programmed on the robot’s back panel or at a main station.

A minor break in the magnetic guide strip (above) has no effect on the mission, which is programmed on the robot’s back panel or at a main station.

Huang Rujing, vice president of sales at the robots’s Shenzhen manufacturer later filled in some of the gaps. My first guess at the verbal warning given when I blocked one of the waitresses was close. She was really saying, “Handsome guy/pretty girl please don’t block my route, I need to deliver dishes.”

The other default voice setting explained something else. On the left and right of the serving tray, there’s a button that says EXIT (in English!). The children kept pushing it, since that only caused a momentary change in the button’s color. I wasn’t really sure what it was.

It turns out that when the waitress arrives at a table, she says, “Number __ table guests, your food has arrived. Please, take the food and press the exit button so I can go back.” So, if the diners collect the food themselves, they can then press the button to send the waitress on her way. With so many children pushing the button at every chance, I don’t think this feature gets used much.

One thing surprised me a little. In combat robotics, if the bot loses contact with the controller, it automatically stops and disarms all weapons. With a robomower, if it loses contact with the perimeter controller, it stops and turns off the mowing blades. Mr. Huang says if the main control panel loses power, a robowaitress will continue her mission.

Once she’s dispatched, she can’t be recalled unless she reaches the table and someone presses the exit button. With my background, this HAL 9000-like enthusiasm for the mission (at all costs) along with no automatic shutdown if a major part of the system fails is a little worrisome. Of course, combat bots and robomowers have one thing my new bot girl friends lack—parts which can hurt you. Then again, HAL didn’t need weapons in 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Although I firmly believe we’ll have many more robots in our future, for the moment, robowaitresses remain a gimmick (admittedly, a very cool one). Improved ability to navigate through crowds and arms capable of effectively and safely putting food directly onto tables are both needed before they’ll be able to start replacing human staff instead of just drawing crowds.

According to Mr. Huang, half of this is already in the works. The next generation will have better navigation abilities and should be able to move around obstacles more easily instead of staying centered on the magnetic strip. They also will have more ability to communicate with customers. We may have to wait a little longer for a fembot who can put the food on the table, or slap an inquisitive robophile who tries to get a look at her circuitry.