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The rise of the robo-waiter

It's an official trend: Robot restaurants have appeared in Japan, South Korea, China and now Thailand.

The other big shortcoming of robots is mobility. Bots are far less nimble than human waiters. The models that share the aisle with humans, relying on motion sensors to avoid obstacles, can only slow down or stop to avoid collision. They must also follow a set path marked on the floor in white striping.

“In a busy place with other waitresses moving around and 6-year-olds running to the bathroom,” Nourbakhsh said, “robots have to move slowly and carefully.” That means dinner may arrive at room temperature if it’s traveling in robot pincers instead of human hands.

But at least two eateries have sidestepped this problem with a bots-only lane of travel. At Bangkok’s Hajime, which opened last year, the man-sized robots zip back and forth on a rail. Tables line the track on both sides. When the bot arrives with dinner, a plastic window slides open and the food is passed through.

Similarly, a South Korean cafe that employs much smaller bots — no bigger than a microwave — offers its bots a dedicated pathway elevated to table height.

While fun and amusing, “it’s really just a conveyor belt, bringing food from the kitchen, with lots of bells and whistles,” said Devendra Garg, head of Duke University’s Robotics Laboratory. “Everything is within a constrained format.”

“These robots don’t have to react to unanticipated situations,” Garg said. “There’s a lot more work to be done in research laboratories before we get to that point.”

The real asset machines bring to eateries is high-speed computation on the fly, Nourbakhsh said. A fellow Carnegie-Mellon roboticist has invented a system that can scan cars in a drive-thru lane and predict how much food each car will order. (Hint: SUVs order more fries than sedans.)

Its findings are displayed to cooks, who are commanded to prepare a precise amount of food even as the vehicles turn into the parking lot. The customer’s meal arrives more freshly cooked and money wasted on unsold, pre-prepared burgers is saved.

“This is where robots will succeed,” Nourbakhsh said. “They’ll do what humans can’t even imagine doing.”

How much longer until we get robot waiters that can field diners’ questions, sidestep toddlers in the aisle and do it all for at less cost than a human?

“Forty years,” said Nourbakhsh. “And nobody wants to invest too much money into research because humans do such good job of it.”