Why Nobody Loves Robot Waiters

The threat of robot replacement looms large over virtually every profession these days – including my own – as robotics and AI solutions get more and more developed. But when it comes to restaurant service in China, the robot waiters are already here.

So, is it the end of the world as we know it for human waitstaff at Chinese restaurants? Apparently not.

Restaurant owners who want to replace their waitstaff have no shortage of options for a convenient robot purchase: 169 different sellers listed robot waiters on Taobao when I checked late Thursday night. But not a single one has sold a unit, according to Taobao’s public sales statistics.

That might seem a little surprising given that – if their sellers are to be believed – most of these robotos are “capable of replacing a human waiter’s client-facing services.” They can navigate restaurants without running people over, greet customers as they enter, talk about dishes, and even do other stuff like play music.

So why’s nobody buying them? I asked a couple of Taobao robot sellers that very question but (perhaps unsurprisingly) they didn’t want to talk about why people weren’t buying their products (and one claimed to be making sales via other channels).

One reason for the apparent lack of interest in the robots might be the cost. In the long run, a robot waiter will pay for itself if it actually replaces human waitstaff, but the up-front cost is a lot higher. Most of the robot waiters on Taobao cost around RMB 60,000 (US$9,400). That’s more than what it would cost to pay a human waiter China’s average wages for an entire year.

Another reason is probably that the technology isn’t really there yet – a robot waiter can do the same basic tasks as a human server, but it can’t handle unexpected situations, can’t read customers’ moods and adjust its tone accordingly, can’t try to calm down and angry customer or apologize for a mistake, etc. Robots can probably do all of the tasks a waiter might put in bullet points on a resume, but they can’t yet handle those other little human things that get a waiter through the day.

Ultimately, though, I suspect that the main reason is that having a robot waiter is kind of cold and inhuman. Especially in China, interpersonal relationships are extremely important, and while nobody goes to a restaurant to hang out with a waiter, it does seem like giving your orders to a machine would feel a bit impersonal. Having a robot waiter is the sort of thing that might bring a lot of new customers in for the novelty, but it’s hard to imagine a robot waiter developing any kind of rapport with the regulars like a human waiter would, for example.

Yes, the era of robots is upon us. China’s largest property developer just announced it’s going to replace even more of its workers with robots. But in the restaurant business, at least, it seems humanity still has the upper hand.

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