Restaurants sacking robots for being 'dumb' waiters

Little Flower, a robot, in a Shenyang restaurant. Several restaurants have stopped using robots for their inability to perform tasks such as handling soup dishes, but Little Flower seems to be managing quite well .
Little Flower, a robot, in a Shenyang restaurant. Several restaurants have stopped using robots for their inability to perform tasks such as handling soup dishes, but Little Flower seems to be managing quite well .PHOTO: CHINA FOTO PRESS

BEIJING • Several Chinese restaurants have pulled the plug on poorly skilled robot chefs and clumsy waiters, following complaints that they are unable to do simple tasks such as topping up water or taking customers' orders.

In Xiamen, around 10 robots have been fired because they were just not clever or sophisticated enough to do their jobs properly, reported Xiamen Daily earlier this month.

"The robots were not intelligent at all," an employee at the restaurant called Chopsticks Passion told the newspaper. "They were merely standing there to look fancy."

The restaurant made headlines for using four automated waiters when it opened last October. Only two of them remain - to greet customers at the door.

Another robot-themed restaurant shut down because the dishes prepared by the robot chefs were "unpalatable". A former diner, identified as just Zhao, told Xiamen Daily: "The food was not tasty at all and the whole restaurant was filled with kitchen fumes because of the poor cooking skills of the robot chefs."

In the southern city of Guangzhou, two restaurants which made use of robotic waiters have closed down and a third which remains open has given all but one of the robots the sack, reported Workers' Daily.

The Heweilai Restaurant chain in Guangzhou stopped using the machines for a number of reasons, reported website Ecns.cn.

A staff member said the robots could not handle soup dishes, often break down and had to follow a fixed route which sometimes resulted in collisions. Another said the robots were able to perform only a small number of tasks. "Their skills were somewhat limited," she said. "They can't take orders or pour hot water for customers."

Besides the purchase cost of 50,000 yuan (S$10,000), a robot waiter requires maintenance costing several hundred yuan a month.

Despite there being cost savings for the restaurants, there are some things beyond the reach of artificial intelligence.

Mr Zhang Yun, vice-principal of Guangdong University of Technology, said that while robots were excellent at improving productivity in the manufacturing industry where tasks are repetitive, they were unable to perform well in fields where frequent human interaction was necessary.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 20, 2016, with the headline 'Restaurants sacking robots for being 'dumb' waiters'. Print Edition | Subscribe