It might be a while before we have access to intergalactic cantinas where aliens pour us bubbling beverages and play wacky instruments for our entertainment. But those who yearn for futuristic eating and drinking experiences are in luck: robots can mix drinks and deliver food, all without getting irritated by dietary constraints or angling for a big tip.
China’s Dalu Robot Restaurant features droids that serve food dim-sum style. They glide or even ride bicycles a floor track, stopping when someone reaches for a dish. Similar restaurants can be found in Japan, South Korea, Hong Kong, and Thailand. Customers often order via touch screen, but some robots can also respond to verbal orders.
In some restaurants, robots perform the full range of restaurant services. At the Haohai Robot Restaurant in Harbin, China, robots prepare the dumpling and noodle-centric meals, wait tables, and seat customers after greeting them by saying, “Earth Person, Hello.” While it’s not quite cantina-style jamming, a singing robot entertains patrons.
Recently, the Western world has gotten in on the trend. Yo! Sushi, a London chain, has been using drink carts and conveyor belts since 2008, and in 2013 debuted a drone that flies food to tables on trays (the diners have to take the food off the trays themselves). The iTray drone, which is controlled by an iPad, can reach 25 miles an hour, though that’s probably not recommended for drink orders.
California has joined the fun, opening branches of the fully automated restaurant Eatsa in Los Angeles and San Francisco. There aren’t any robots yet, but there aren’t human greeters or servers, either. Human cooks prepare food in the kitchen, but patrons can’t see them—their experience consists of ordering on a touch screen, paying via credit card, and then retrieving their food from a cubby.
But the robot workers are coming. San Francisco-based Momentum Machines develops restaurant robots and have developed a robot can flip a burger and slice its toppings in roughly 10 seconds. The next iteration of the robot will custom-grind meats for those bored with standard ground beef.
Monsieur has created Eatsa’s cocktail-making counterpart, allowing customers to order a drink through a touch screen, put a glass in the compartment, and push a button. Drink packages can be customized with different cocktail combinations and recipes, and event managers can track the popularity of various drinks and monitor the machine’s diagnostics via an app.
Party Robotics’ Bartendro system looks like high-tech Slurpee dispenser, featuring tubes and pumps that attach to bottles of booze. The system delivers precisely measured concoctions to order and have sensors that alert staff when liquor levels are low.
Royal Caribbean’s Quantum of the Seas , the world’s first “smart ship,” boasts the Bionic Bar. Makr Shakr and MIT partnered up to create BO-1 and N1-C, mechanical arms that won’t shoot tequila with customers or commiserate about breakups, but they can shake or stir two drinks a minute. Instead of sliding the drinks down the bar to customers, they deliver booze via conveyor belts.
And then there’s Japan’s Henn-na, the world’s first robotic hotel, which features humanoid receptionists, mechanical dinosaur bellhops, and automated luggage carts. Rooms contain small Chu-Ri-Chan concierge robots that manage the lights, wake-up calls, and dispense information about the hotel and the weather. While the human owner lurks in the back, it’s possible to check in, sleep, and eat without interacting with another person, which adds an element of technological isolation to a vacation, which might be exactly what some visitors want.
These robots may help humans, but if humans rely on the income they receive for doing this work, it’s worth asking about the ultimate goal of developing these robots. Momentum Machines is unapologetic about the implications of its robots: they’re meant to “completely obviate” workers. The jury’s out on whether continuing to automate tasks and services will devastate human laborers, particularly those in lower-skilled jobs, or whether this trend will galvanize human resourcefulness and open up new and potentially more fulfilling jobs.
Robotics and AI professor Noel Sharkey predicts that at least 35 million service robots will be “at work” worldwide by 2018, so it won’t be long until we feel their impact. Until then, questions loom ever larger: should we make these robots because they’re novel party tricks? Or perhaps just to see if we can? Or should we seek a different, perhaps deeper motivation for creating robots that won’t recognize us as regulars at the neighborhood bar?