With a whir and a flash of lights, a robot whizzes to the restaurant table and takes a customer’s order, while a second races to another table to deliver plates of steaming food.
This isn’t a scene from a science-fiction novel. Rather, it’s the daily routine at a new diner in a suburban Hong Kong shopping centre.
Robot Kitchen opened in July to cash in on the city’s love affair with gadgets, claiming to be the world’s first eatery staffed by machines.
“We thought robots would be a good gimmick,” said Peter Chow, who built the automatons working at the diner. “Now they have caught on, we are having to upgrade and update them.”
At the moment the diner has just two robots — Robo Waiter 1 and 2 — neither of which resemble the human-like robots one sees in the movies.
Robo Waiter 1, for instance, is a crudely designed box on wheels covered in shiny paper and with an illuminated bulb to represent a head.
The computer inside can recognise voice patterns, take meal orders and send them by infrared to the cooks in the kitchen. It is steered by a video camera, which detects objects in its way and guides the robot around them.
Robo Waiter 2 is much the same, but has a tray for carrying food.
A third robot, still in production, will be no more than an articulated electronic arm that can do simple manoeuvres such as flip burgers and prepare omelettes.
Due to the robots’ limited abilities, the restaurant has had to hire extra staff to take up the slack and do the actual cooking. “They definitely aren’t labour-saving devices,” said Chow. “In fact, we need more staff than normal to keep the machines going.”
Chow makes no apologies for the machines’ apparent lack of sophistication. “Many people think robotics have come a long way — they have in research — but the commercially available robots are still pretty basic,” he said.
Adding to the ambience, meals are given themed, if somewhat clumsy, names in the menu — a ham and pineapple pizza, for instance, is rechristened “Robot Energetic Pizza” — and the floor is strewn with toy robots that variously dance and sing or attack customers as they enter.
Former Nasa robotics expert Mark Tilden, the creator of the hugely popular Robosapien toy robot, said he admires anyone who tries to make a business out of robots, but warned the going will be tough.
“The problem is that there is a gulf between the technology and people’s expectations,” Tilden said from his office at Hong Kong-based Wow Wee Toys. “The technology is there to get robots to do very complicated tasks, but the problem is the people; they expect robots to do so much more than people can do.
“Whenever robots have been put to use in public places, they have been popular for as long as it takes for people to be bored by their narrow functions.”
In Robot Kitchen, that day is still far off for two regular young visitors.
“It’s like being in Star Wars,” said 10-year-old Joey Loh, as he tucked into a special dish billed on the menu as “Robot Protecting the Earth” — otherwise known as pork ribs and sausage.
“It’s exciting and high-tech,” agreed his friend Leung Wai-man, also 10. “I feel like I have travelled in time to the future.” — AFP