In Robot Kitchen, one robot rushes to the restaurant table and takes a customer’s order, while a second races to another table to deliver plates of steaming food.
The new restaurant opened in July in a suburban Hong Kong shopping centre in a bid to cash in on the city’s love affair with gadgets.
“We thought robots would be a good gimmick,” said Peter Chow, who built the automatons working at the restaurant.
“Now they have caught on, we are having to upgrade and update them.”
At present the restaurant has just two robots – Robo Waiter One and Two – neither of which resemble the human-like robots one sees in films.
They definitely aren’t labour-saving devices, in fact, we need more staff than normal to keep the machines going”
Robo Waiter One, 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 Two 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.”
But Chow makes no apologies for the machines’ apparent lack of sophistication.
He says: “Many people think robotics have come a long way – they have in research – but the commercially available robots are still pretty basic.”
Mark Tilden, a former Nasa robotics expert and creator of the popular Robosapien toy robot, said he admired anyone who tried to make a business out of robots, but warned the going would be tough.
“The problem is that there is a gulf between the technology and people’s expectations”
former Nasa robotics expert
“The problem is that there is a gulf between the technology and people’s expectations,” Tilden said.
“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.”
However, in Robot Kitchen, the gimmick is still proving popular for some young customers.
“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.