Back in the 70s, the robots were coming for our crappy manufacturing jobs. Now, it seems, they're coming for our crappy table service jobs. Korean company ITM Technology has developed restaurant concept around a cute little robot that fulfills the role of a waiter - it takes orders from customers, either verbally or through a touch screen, then relays them to the kitchen, and brings the food out when it's ready. Robo Cafe eliminates ordering errors, reduces staffing costs dramatically for restaurant owners, and even brings the boss all the tips. It's probably not going to be nearly as interesting to Tiger Woods, though.
Since spending a little time at the Tokyo Robotics Expo late last year, one thing has become crystal clear - Japan, in particular, is gearing up for some very tough times ahead. When the bulk of its aging population becomes too old to work, labor is going to be in severe shortage. And the ingenious technology sector in East Asia is exploding with really fascinating ideas to take the pressure off when it hits.
With a proportionally smaller workforce, and a booming robotics sector, human labour is going to have to be used very selectively - which will be quite a turnaround in Japan, a land where department stores currently employ squads of well-manicured girls whose sole job it is to greet you when you enter.
What's more, the value of an hour of labor is likely to skyrocket - and this scarcity and expense of employee time is going to combine to make the case for automation a lot stronger.
In the case of small cafe and restaurant owners, the solution might well look something like Robo Cafe. Robo Cafe is a restaurant designed to operate as efficiently as possible with the absolute minimum human workforce possible.
The building needs to be designed with small horizontal pathways leading from the kitchen to all the tables. A small team of waiter robots can then get around to every table in the house when they're summoned by customers.
Customers can either order verbally, or flick through extra options on a touch screen on the robot's belly. Once the order is confirmed, the robot relays it to the kitchen. When the kitchen's done preparing the food, the robots bring it out to the customers - and it's the same process for ordering drinks.
In the case of a small chain bakery, the robots are able to take over the whole front of house operation, and the back room could largely be operated by a staff of one. It was hard for us to get much more detail out of Robo Cafe's promoters in Tokyo, simply because we don't speak Japanese and they don't have a lot of English - but the idea is simple and clear.
The brilliant Dan Carlin talks about the "kitchen of the future" in one of his podcasts (Addicted to Bondage - highly recommended), where everything is automated and the labor is free because you own it. And how really, the kitchen of the future is actually the kitchen of the past, when you consider that throughout human history, there are myriad examples of slavery situations in which one man could actually own another, never having to pay for labor, only for slave maintenance expenses like clothes, food and medicine.
As Carlin points out, today's concept of slavery is mostly restricted to non-humans. And the ownership of robot labor in a Robo Cafe type situation will almost certainly prove itself far more economical and dependable than a human workforce once the technology itself becomes mature.
Of course, slaves have a worrying habit of rising up against their owners - and Robo Cafe's parent company ITM Technology is best known for its military hardware, so owners had best treat these cute little fellas with some respect!
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