Hospitality goes hi-tech: Robot waiters and butlers are a reality / The Australian


written by Chris Griffith Senior Tech Journalist – The Australian – Thursday 28th May 2015

In the 1973 slapstick comedy Sleeper, Miles Monroe (played by Woody Allen) escapes a villainous 22nd-century dictatorship by disguising himself as a robot.

Monroe, who has been cryo-preserved for 200 years, lacks a biometric identity so is an outcast. He sensibly hides among a bunch of domestic robots, which are common in the 22nd century.

Now the present has caught up with the future. Robot butlers and robot restaurant waiters are a reality you won’t have to time-travel 200 years for.

The technology is already here but what’s missing is affordability and social acceptance, says business futurist Morris Miselowski.

A robot server in a restaurant is not that far away “if we want it to be”, he says. “At the moment, our robots are quite ordinary and they’re used very much as a promotion tool or marketing tool.

“To have a robot is something unusual.”

But labs already produce more sophisticated machines. “We have robots that are quite adroit, better than people at avoiding people, and will stop on a dime if they bump into somebody, and can serve drinks without spilling them,” Miselowski says.

The first intelligent robotics are being harnessed domestically and commercially. Jibo, a companion robot for the home, can hold a conversation, complete tasks and teach your kids. Part of an crowd-funded project, Jibo is scheduled to go on sale within a year for $US749 ($964) and Australia will be part of the initial sales push.

Other android robots are ­heading for the domestic market. Aldebaran’s Nao is used in schoolrooms, as is a newer android version called Pepper. These robots are more smooth talkers than anything else. They don’t cook or sweep floors, or wind up the Hills hoist to hang out the washing. But they are a start.

In the world of cafes and restaurants, android waiters are making their mark, with China, Japan, and South Korea leading the way. In northeast China at Ningbo, they take orders, serve food, and use an optical sensing system to navigate. But they can utter only a handful of phrases in Mandarin.

Other robots can prepare food. The Wishdoing restaurant in Shanghai boasts robots that can cook dishes in less than three minutes. That means the vast slab of restaurant practices — taking orders, preparing food and serving dishes — can be mechanised.

So far the robot wheel-out is a gimmick, and costly compared with their human counterparts. The Ningbo robots cost about $11,900 each. Compare that with the wages of a restaurant worker in China. At Bangkok’s Hajime Robot Restaurant, two robots reportedly cost $US930,000 ($1.2m), compared with waiters earning less than $US10 for a 10-hour shift.

There are novel variations of this theme. The Timbre food chain in Singapore plans to use self-­piloting drones to fly food and drinks out to waiters. The Royal Caribbean cruise ship Quantum of the Seas, launched last year, boasts two robot bartenders. They’re basically robotic arms that shake a mean cocktail. Create your dream cocktail with a tablet computer, press send, the robots do the rest.

In Australia, the AirService platform automates food ordering processes and eventually could morph into a full-fledged robot. AirService lets customers order and pay for their meals using smartphones and tablets with no need for a waiter. It is used in 250 restaurants, cafes and bowling alleys, with another 1500 venues set to come on board.

Chief executive Dominic Bressan says customers could soon order verbally via tablet computers. Their words would be processed using the built-in voice recognition programs Siri, Google Voice and Microsoft’s Cortana, now “at a good enough level” to handle basic ordering, he says.

Adding an intelligence engine would let the tablet hold a basic conversation with customers, and it could be programmed to offer alternative food suggestions if items were not available.

“While I’m at AirService I would like to see it go to the next level with voice recognition technology,” Bressan says, adding it would “make that order experience as seamless as possible”.

He foresees voice recognition technology eventually morphing into a home-grown robotic waiter.

There are downsides to machines taking over from human waiters. It will put people out of work and customers may not warm to robots, especially if they enjoy conversation. They’ll miss the human touch.

Robot waiters may not be as nimble as humans at avoiding small children playing on the floor as they walk around. There’s the big upfront cost and the need to create large, open-lane spaces through which robots travel.

And let’s hope a robot taking your order in a Parisian restaurant doesn’t confuse your desire for poisson with poison.

But Bressan says the robot waiter will take off. “I think artificial intelligence will get to a pretty impressive level within the next two decades,” he says. “When it hits that point it will accelerate very, very quickly.”

Miselowski points to the advent of very human-looking androids with typical human facial mannerisms, such as Japanese newsreader robot Kodomoroid.

He sees cultural acceptance and a business model for using robot waiters that goes far beyond their novelty value as more the issue. “All of those things (they can do) are practical, but they’re not purposeful at this stage.

“If we’re going out for an experience, we’re going to a fine-dining restaurant and it’s all about sitting there and enjoying the meal, is culture ready to accept a robot?”

Nevertheless he says good artificial intelligence capabilities are only two to three years away and that sophisticated android robot technology will be available within a decade. “I don’t think we’re too far off. But we’re probably five to 10 years away from finding a business purpose that says this is a better alternative than hiring staff.”