Domo Arigato, Mr. Roboto

It wasn’t so long ago that “automated restaurant” meant the use of vending machines or conveyor belts. Here running sushi chains come to mind. In parts of Asia this concept has been expanding into rather futuristic dimensions for a few years. In many restaurants humanoid robots serve you, converse with you and even cook for you.

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The main reason for replacing humans with mechanical service is lowering personnel costs. A robot only has to be paid for once, after which it tirelessly performs its services without complaining, getting sick or joining a union. Not to mention the included entertainment value of it all at no extra charge.

Some restaurants just replace the service staff. Others replace everybody. At a restaurant in Kunshan, China intelligent automatons zoom back and forth between the tables and the kitchen. Three prepare the food, while four more bring orders to their respective guests. To orient them, wide lines on the floor lead to the right tables. They have motion sensors to avoid any accidents with wandering guests. Cuteness best characterizes their design. The eyes in their round silver heads alternately blink hearts and dollar signs.

Things are less cute at FuA-Men (Fully Automated raMen). Two robots resembling two huge hydraulic claw arms prepare ramen soups. Think car factory. When they don’t have anything to do, they entertain their guests by pretending to have a knife fight in which one of them uses a pot lid as a shield.

Yet the most spectacular robot service is found at the Hajime Restaurant in Bangkok. The robots are modeled on samurai fighters and have a darling pair of anime eyes. You order via a touchscreen at your seat. A few minutes later your armor-clad server coasts toward you on a rail. When you’re finished, you place your dishes and silverware in the designated area, and the robot takes them away.

Is this what the future of the restaurant business holds? Hard to imagine. As precisely, efficiently and tirelessly as robots are able to work, they’ll always be lacking one trait: a sense of taste. A robot cannot be programmed with the love and creativity with which a chef imbues his restaurant over the years. Neither can it season to taste nor try the wine itself. No machine in the world can replace an essential understanding of restaurant-goers’ sensory impressions. That necessitates consciousness. In the meantime I’ll make do with clumsy, flesh-and-blood service.

Image credits: Mari, Visual Shocks

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