Minimum wage legislation in the United States has encouraged thoughts about robot waiters. More than half of the country's state legislatures have committed to raising the minimum wage, and this has raised concerns in several areas, not least the restaurant industry. Wages account for about a third of a restaurant's costs, so ideas about employing androids are gaining traction.
A restaurant called Eatsa in San Francisco has iPads at specific stations so diners can peruse the menu and order their meals. Helpfully, the restaurant supplies an attendant to assist those who can't figure out the iPad. The food is delivered to a nearby wall compartment. That flashes the customer's name and the customer goes and collects the meal. In the hidden kitchen, staff prepare the meals. Automated, yes – but no mention of a robot waiter.
In Ningbo, China there is a restaurant that does have robot waiters though. Its robots can speak – apparently something like 40 phrases in Mandarin. 'Enjoy your meal', is one example of their linguistic abilities; an improvement perhaps on that ubiquitously awful command 'Enjoy!'. Children are said to implore their parents to take them there. At approximately US $9,000 each, the robots find their way around with optical sensors.
Restaurants with robot waiters don't seem to be hugely uncommon in Japan, Thailand or India either. The Hajime Restaurant in Bangkok apparently has a robot waiter dressed up in a samurai outfit. It brings orders out to diners, and can spontaneously burst out in a song and dance routine. The Hohai Restaurant in Harbin, China has 18 robot waiters tricked up to look like characters from Pixar films. They not only serve the customers, they can prepare drinks and clean off the plates as well. The Pizza Hut in China has robots called Pepper, which have screens on their chests that display the menus and let you 'tap' them with your credit card to pay the bill. There's no mention of the recommended tip.
There is little mention of robot waiters in Scotland, although the Magic Agency in Glasgow has a robot 'greeter' for functions and parties. Apparently it is seven feet tall, moves like a robot, and speaks with a robotic voice. But Scotland might just have been a world pioneer with this labour-saving concept. A dim and distant memory tells me there was a restaurant in Leith which employed one about 30 years ago. My wife and I encountered it one unforgettable evening. It's also about 30 years since that restaurant closed down, so I should probably omit the name of the establishment from this story.
We arrived to find the restaurant fairly full. It was beautifully appointed, with stark black and white chequerboard tiling on the floor – although it was probably linoleum to ensure the robot waiter had a smooth ride. The lighting was dim, and high up in the ceiling some sort of device blew intermittent bubbles and flashed a bright strobe light. The robot waiter moved around mechanically, visiting tables and then disappearing through a swing door into what was probably a kitchen service area. It looked a bit like an early Dalek and seemed a little unsteady. There were a couple of minor collisions with the furniture, and I remember thinking vaguely about the effects of the swing door banging against the robotic brain. But soon the strobe light and bubbles gave us a headache, so we ate our meal, paid and left.
Not long after that we came across a headline in the newspaper which went something like 'Robot Waiter Goes Berserk'. The story that followed wasn't hard for us to picture. Apparently the waiter had got its wires crossed and gone completely off the rails. It had charged up to a table and dumped a bowl of hot soup on someone's lap.
All before the advent of the hacker.