This post previously appeared on MUNCHIES in September, 2014.
The robot waiters in Tian Waike Restaurant in the Chinese city of Kunshan look like they're designed for world domination, but also like they'd never get up if you kicked them over.
Since the start of August they have been scooting around the fast food joint in Jiangsu province holding trays of dumplings, fried rice and whatnot, while their metal colleagues prepare food in the kitchen. Pangolin—the company that designed them—probably aren't the Skynet of the fast food world quite yet, but company boss Song Yugang eventually wants his robots to replace humans the world over.
He opened Tian Waike as a showcase for his creations, and the novelty value of having your food prepared by a robot with a stirrer instead of a hand has proved a popular draw. When I met him there on a Monday lunchtime it was almost deserted, but Yugang said it was always rammed during the weekends, when he has to stop letting people in at midday.
While the venue mainly exists to show off robots to potential buyers, the origin of the cooking and serving droids is closer to home.
"I did this for my daughters," Yugang, who is pictured below, said. "They don't know how to do household chores. I asked them to learn from my wife, but they were not willing to. I told them that if they don't learn, they wouldn't find a decent husband. But in 2010 my daughters told me to develop robots that can manage the house and cook and I answered, 'Yes'. A father always keep promises to his daughters."
Sadly, judging by the scope of robo-abilities I saw, Yugang's kids won't be able to hang up their spatulas completely for a while. There were four robot cooks in the kitchen, each undertaking basic tasks such as whisking, stirring, squirting oil and shaking. All required attention from human workers, who constantly stepped in to move ingredients around, transfer dishes or cut up slabs of chicken with scissors.
The robots seemed to be little more than multi-functional electric kitchen appliances with glowing eyes, but Yugang claimed that having them allowed him to hire a staff of around six people per shift; he would hire around 20 there if robots weren't pulling most of the weight. He also said that, as a part of the cooking process was cut out, he could hire basic cooks instead of proper chefs.
"A robot can work for seven to eight years and more than ten hours a day," he said. "Waiters and waitresses work for eight hours every day, nine at most. You need to provide accommodations and meals. But our robots consume three yuan [50 cents, or 30 pence] worth of electricity a day at most."
The waiter robots were a touch more impressive than their kitchen-bound brethren. They zipped around the restaurant with their trays, stopping at their designated tables where customers grabbed their food then patted the robot on the head to tell it to return to the counter.
They couldn't yet begrudgingly take a photo of your dining group on your smartphone for you, but they were at least doing their basic job well.
"Many people complain online that robots are slow," Yugang said. "But that's because children stand in the way to play with them. Serving is slowed down by that. Children hug robots and won't let them go. But I like children, so I let them play."
Of course, some kids were just petrified by them.
There was a greeting robot, too (pictured below). That one could tell if a customer was walking into or out of the restaurant and say hello or goodbye accordingly. But Yugang has found that if his robots get too chatty, their work rate suffers.
"Our cooking robots can speak but I turned the function off," he said. "They don't need to speak. Other robots can say simple sentences like, 'I am sorry, I am busy working now' to children trying to play with them. They are able to conduct simple communications, like, 'How old are you? Are you a boy or a girl?' But I turned that off too. Otherwise people would want to talk to the robots all the time."
While it's clear that the novelty factor is what keeps Tian Waike going, Yugang is adamant that he's sitting on the future of the catering industry. He claims that he has orders for "thousands" of serving and kitchen robots already in China, and is looking for investment to make his place a full franchise worldwide. (He's already opened two other Chinese branches.)
He does admit that he is a robot expert rather than restaurateur at heart, and the standard of the food is testament to this. Yugang says things will improve.
"Cooking robots are so difficult," he says. "Some say they are more difficult to make than going into space. We are still putting in lots of money to improve them and in several years if we want to eat Kung Pao chicken, spicy chicken, and steamed fish, we will be able to press a button and ask a robot to do that. Or we could simply talk to them."
It seems like robot fast food domination remains a couple of years off yet. As does the prospect of getting anything verging on delicious produced by one of these blinky-eyed cyber-cooks.
But hey, for now, the rush of euphoria you experience when you take your lunch from the arms of something seemingly stolen from the Dr. Who prop cupboard rather than a spotty student is enough to spice up even the dullest of dishes.
Additional reporting by Jane Wu.