Do Robots Make Good Waiters?
Advantages, disadvantages, and societal acceptance
There has been a lot of buzz lately surrounding robots being introduced in many industries, from hospitality to retail. For example, at the Henn-na Hotel in Japan, a robot dinosaur greets you at the front desk. At the Marriott hotel in Belgium, Mario the robot welcomes guests in 19 languages and monitors the buffet.
Foodservice is also beginning to use this technology, with Asia taking the lead in testing robot waiters, with mixed success. These robots have an optical sensing system that allows them to navigate a restaurant and they can speak about 40 phrases to customers. Some owners praise their advantages, while others have reverted back to human staff or their restaurants have been forced to shut down due to incompetent robot service. However, once the technology improves, robots may prove to be a viable option for foodservice operators.
Robot technology has historically been met with excitement as well as concern. Numerous science fiction stories caution against the consequences of artificial intelligence and citizens worry about potential job losses. Do robots have the potential to improve foodservice? Digital ordering kiosks have already been implemented in many restaurants. Will robot waiters be the next technological step?
Although they may seem gimmicky now, there are advantages to non-human waiters. Employers do not have to worry about hiring, sick time, vacations, or human error. It will offer a consistent branded experience, with an unique attraction to customers. Labor costs are also said to be reduced with robot waiters, which is a compelling selling point as minimum wage costs rise. Robot waiters used in China are reportedly less expensive than a human waiter’s annual salary. Robots can also be used for cooking or food preparation.
Former McDonald’s USA CEO Ed Rensi says that “it’s cheaper to buy a $35,000 robotic arm than it is to hire an employee who’s inefficient making $15 an hour, bagging french fries.” Although troubling for people who depend on these jobs, businesses may overlook these concerns if they are struggling to maintain financial stability.
There are some obvious disadvantages to using robots. However, in their current state, the robots used in some restaurants in China are less coordinated than humans: they follow a fixed track, move slowly to avoid collisions, and are often unable to pour drinks and carry items such as soup steadily. They can also break down and have a limited ability to interact with customers.
Robots, such as “Pepper,” have revolutionary communication skills as they are able to upsell and interact smoothly with customers. However, they could easily be replaced by a more efficient, non-verbal, digital applications. Robots also require a period of adjustment before they are accepted as mainstream technology. There are also ethical concerns with robot technology. Job loss and the impacts on society are important topics to consider as we navigate a new working landscape with the adoption of robots.
Societal acceptance of new technology can be a long process. Henrik Scharfe, associate professor at Denmark’s Aalborg University, estimates that it will take about 40 years before society can fully accept robot waiters as an option in foodservice. If this change takes place, restaurant staff may be more relationship-focused rather than operational, similar to the ways bank staff had to adapt to the introduction of ATMs. The technology of a human-like waiter may still need improvements, but major improvements in a short period of time are possible, as seen in the development of computers and cellphone technology. It is also likely that robotized processes will be integrated into mainstream foodservice before actual robot waiters, since this technology is more common and already used in many industries. Perhaps technology that does not mimic human waiters, but gets the job done in its own way, will gain popularity. For example, many Japanese sushi restaurants use conveyor belts to deliver meals to customers.
Robot waiters have advantages and disadvantages, and it will take some time before they are widely accepted by society. It will be exciting to watch the development of this innovative technology.
Is your foodservice business ready for robot servers? How would your customers react to such a change? Let us know in the comments below and subscribe to receive the latest Shikatani Lacroix insights in your inbox.