We normally think of the Japanese as being on the cutting edge of robotics, but China appears to be closing the gap. Last month, a restaurant opened in the eastern province of Shandong that uses only robot waiters—no humans need apply.
The Dalu Robot restaurant specializes in hotpot dishes, which are the Chinese variation on fondue. A metal pot of stock is placed on a burner in the center of the table; as it simmers, diners dip meat, seafood and vegetables into the hotpot and cook them to their own preference. At Dalu Robot, the servers are equipped with motion sensors, so there’s no need to flag them down—simply stand in front of one and the robot will stop, allowing you to grab a plate of food. There’s a female-looking robot to greet you at the reception area, and several robotic entertainers to keep the crowd happy.
Thus far, the patrons seem to be delighted. They don’t have to tip, for one thing, and the robots are superior to human servers in a number of areas. They don’t show up for work with bad attitudes, or get tired as the evening progresses. They probably don’t have names such as Todd or Anthony, and they don’t introduce themselves to you at the beginning of the meal or bore you with their life story in the hope of garnering more compensation. Best of all, they are not unemployed actors. In China, where the development of the service industry hasn’t been as rapid as the country’s overall economic growth, they are a blessing. At roughly $6,000 apiece they’re not cheap, but they probably deliver more value over the long haul than their human counterparts.
Zhang Yongpei, owner of Dalu Robot, is looking forward to robotic employees who can climb stairs and serve customers at the table. He’d better be careful, lest the scientists come up with a robot restaurant owner as well.