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Restaurant in China Employs Robotic Wait Staff & Chefs
2/18/2013

The Harbin Haohai Robot Company in China has developed a robotic restaurant staff and opened a restaurant that uses them to cook, greet clients, and wait tables. The robots, which are multicolored and travel around via sensors on the floor, cost about $31,000 to $47,000 and run on batteries with a five-hour life. The move is part of a growing trend toward service robots, a market that could outpace even industrial robots in the next several years.   (Source: Reuters)
The Harbin Haohai Robot Company in China has developed a robotic restaurant staff and opened a restaurant that uses them to cook, greet clients, and wait tables. The robots, which are multicolored and travel around via sensors on the floor, cost about $31,000 to $47,000 and run on batteries with a five-hour life. The move is part of a growing trend toward service robots, a market that could outpace even industrial robots in the next several years.
(Source: Reuters)

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mrmikel
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Fast Food Robots
mrmikel   2/18/2013 9:18:56 AM
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Since most fast food service is pretty robotic anyway, why not.  At least while they are working, they don't have a bad day, an attitude or use their cell phone to call their friends...I hope.

Cabe Atwell
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Re: Fast Food Robots
Cabe Atwell   2/18/2013 7:10:38 PM
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In a polite society, all is well for the bots. Anywhere else, they will be knocked to the floor – guaranteed. I am surprised this isn't used more. I suppose paying someone $4 USD and hour plus tips is more cost effecting than the $10K+ bots.

 

C

mrmikel
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Re: Fast Food Robots
mrmikel   2/18/2013 7:31:26 PM
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$4/hr....not here.  Federal minimum wage is $7.25 and state minimum in CA is $8, $8.95 in OR and $9.19 in WA.


At fed min that is over $15,000/year.  10K robots look cheap!

tekochip
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Re: Fast Food Robots
tekochip   2/18/2013 8:58:51 PM
The people I knew in food service were paid below minimum wage since it was assumed their tips would make up the rest.  I just hope the robots never drip machine oil on the food if they don't like the customer.


NadineJ
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Re: Fast Food Robots
NadineJ   2/18/2013 11:36:45 PM
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$10K is the initial cost.  Maintenance adds to the annual spending.

Humans are a better choice when working with other humans.  For now, robots can't think for themsleves or react quickly to unexpected situations.

I agree with most here.  This is novelty.

Elizabeth M
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Re: Fast Food Robots
Elizabeth M   2/19/2013 3:38:33 AM
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Yes, Nadine, I tend to agree as well. i have done stories on not only robot waiters but also robot bartenders, but think about the personal element you get when you go to a bar or restaurant and encounter the person serving you. It's just not the same. The thing is, I live in Portugal, and service here isn't nearly to the quality level or personal level (depending where you are) than it is in the U.S.--tipping also isn't such a big deal. In Asia I imagine it's the same--people may not have nor want that feeling of personal interaction with a waiter or bartender. So perhaps it's the cultural differences that make these bots more viable for use there.

Nancy Golden
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Re: Fast Food Robots
Nancy Golden   2/19/2013 9:47:58 AM
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Elizabeth, I think you brought up an excellent point. My first reaction to this article was one of dislike; in my mind there are too many technoloical advances in our "Brave New World" that is slowly robbing us of our humanity. Social media is the antithesis of true social behavior for example - we have depersonalized the way we relate to each other. Using robots as wait staff is yet another example. I still go to the line that has a "real" checker at the grocery store. We know the waiters and waitresses by name at the local restaurants my husband and I frequent and inquire as to how they and their families are doing. We also stop by the little shop where we get our hair cut to say hello to the ladies that have cut our hair for the last five years if we are in the neighborhood. I just think that personal interaction with our fellow human beings adds to the quality of the human experience...but if wait staff in other countries serve in a different capacity and as you have pointed out are not as valued, then perhaps the bots may have a place in those societies. I think I would rather see them in repetitive functions that are typically done in isolation - like dishwashing or stacking napkins. You just can't replace a human smile with metal and plastic, no matter how skillfully done.

NadineJ
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Re: Fast Food Robots
NadineJ   2/19/2013 4:01:36 PM
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I'm not too sure about Europe but I lived in Shanghai and travel to Asia often.  The service is decent.  It ranges a little from country to country.  Thai servers are a little sweeter than Korean servers who seem more warn than Japanese servers, etc.  Overall, the aim to please is very high.  Unlike the US, most aren't allowed to be spontaneous or give "extras" without express permission.

A robot will follow the rules but won't have that something special that most waiters, bartenders, etc in Asia give.

Maybe it's a good addition in a cafeteria setting.

Elizabeth M
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Re: Fast Food Robots
Elizabeth M   2/19/2013 3:23:36 AM
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Good point, Cabe. In the states the bots would have ot have some kind of "idiot defense reflection" move that could keep people from knocking them down or otherwise defacing or harming them. I agree with you that I don't think the U.S. is quite ready for this sort of thing. But the Asians seem to love it...as you point out, they are generally more polite.

Elizabeth M
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Re: Fast Food Robots
Elizabeth M   2/19/2013 3:39:33 AM
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Good point, mrmikel. These might be ideal for fast food, but not in a proper restaurant, as other commenters have pointed out.

Cabe Atwell
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Re: Fast Food Robots
Cabe Atwell   2/19/2013 5:01:40 PM
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A great benefit to consumers; robots don't need tips.

I would love this. I travelled to a few countries where tipping isn't expected, it was great. Though, I did tip on a few occasions. I received confused stares after that.

I think my purpose in going to restaurants would be to somehow control the server bots, hack, if you will. I would figure a way, eventually. Then the fun begins.

C

Charles Murray
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Re: Fast Food Robots
Charles Murray   2/19/2013 8:02:53 PM
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I agree, Cabe. I would probably like this, depending upon how effective it is. I always use self-checkout at the grocery store, not because I don't like the human touch, but because self-checkout is always faster. There's typically a long line for the human checkers. I assume that's because some people are intimidted by self-checkout. If the robots can get the job done faster, and if I'm in a hurry (as I often am), I will always prefer the robot.

Tim
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Re: Fast Food Robots
Tim   2/19/2013 9:28:29 PM
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I am surprised to see this robot setup in China. The fast food places in China have staff to clear tables instead of you discarding the trash. I had a clearer chase me out of the KFC because I cleared my tray. Evidently, this was her job, and I was putting her out of work.

Pubudu
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Re: Fast Food Robots
Pubudu   2/20/2013 12:13:50 AM
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Elizabath, it's nice to have these kinds of new technological things in the market.

But china is the biggest labor market in the world. If these kinds of things popularize in a very big way what will happened to the people in china.

My opinion is we should use the technology for the better future of the humans.

Elizabeth M
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Re: Fast Food Robots
Elizabeth M   2/20/2013 10:50:11 AM
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I completely understand where you are coming from, Pubudu, but I think that humans also work in the restaurant alongside the robots. I know, though, that even though sometimes humans and robots work alongside each other, there is a danger of robots replacing human workers. But perhaps also those workers can be repurposed in some other way.

Charles Murray
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Re: Fast Food Robots
Charles Murray   2/20/2013 9:00:38 PM
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McKinsey & Co. recently concluded that for every job displaced by the Internet, 2.6 new jobs open up. I wonder if the same holds for robotics.

Elizabeth M
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Re: Fast Food Robots
Elizabeth M   2/21/2013 4:13:28 AM
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Interesting statistic, Chuck! Not sure if research into robot-human displacement has gotten far enough that we would know yet, but would be good to research that. I think it may be a bit of time before we see the full effect of robots in the workforce.

Ann R. Thryft
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Re: Fast Food Robots
Ann R. Thryft   2/21/2013 2:28:39 PM
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Actually, I said "not me"--call me crazy, but I like French waiters, snooty and all. I think the French have several things to be legitimately snooty about, and one of them is food. But bad service? That's something else.

Elizabeth M
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Re: Fast Food Robots
Elizabeth M   2/22/2013 5:01:52 AM
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Good point, Ann. The French are within their rights to be that way about food, but there is no excuse for the service. Then again, I sometimes don't mind how I'm treated by the wait staff if the food is deiicious and I don't have to tip them. Put robots in a Michelin star restaurant and I think I would be fine! But service is so tied to the restaurant industry itself, especially in the U.S., which is why I think an idea like that--or robots in most restaurants in general except fast-food chains--wouldn't fly.

Ann R. Thryft
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Re: Fast Food Robots
Ann R. Thryft   2/21/2013 12:24:59 PM
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The problem with a lot of job displacement discussions/analyses/studies is that they don't take into account the kind of new jobs created and the kind of old jobs that become no longer available to lesser-skilled people. The relationship between the skill level of the labor force and the kind of jobs available to it is not as balanced as many such studies would make one think. But that discussion takes a lot more than a few sentences.

Regarding robots, the Freedonia study I reported on here

http://www.designnews.com/author.asp?section_id=1386&doc_id=257119

bluntly and matter-of-factly stated that (I quote myself here): "Because of higher labor costs, robots are being used to replace human workers in existing applications in developed countries. But in developing countries, they're more often deployed to carry out difficult and dangerous tasks that people can't do." As one might imagine, this is not a popular sentiment in the robotics industry.

Elizabeth M
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Re: Fast Food Robots
Elizabeth M   2/22/2013 5:56:36 AM
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So if I am to understand you right, Ann, it is the less developed countries that will suffer worker displacement more than developed countries? That is a shame, I guess, which also may send those workers over to the U.S. to work illegally and be exploited, as another commenter pointed out.

Ann R. Thryft
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Re: Fast Food Robots
Ann R. Thryft   2/22/2013 11:38:19 AM
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Freedonia said that, since less developed countries have many more of the type of jobs that robots typically replace--repetitive and simple tasks--those countries will experience more job replacement than more "developed" countries that have already automated and have more advanced, harder-to-replace jobs currently done by humans. For instance, China's Foxconn is on the verge of solving its labor disputes/scandals by ordering something like a million robots in the next year or so, according to various news reports.

a.saji
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Re: Fast Food Robots
a.saji   2/23/2013 1:01:28 PM
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That's simply amazing but I feel the human touch will be missed here. A robot cannot get what the customer's exact expressions plus it cannot suggest based upon seeing what the customer wants at that moment itself. Robots are programmed so it will work based upon a pre-defined set of codes. 

Ann R. Thryft
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Re: Fast Food Robots
Ann R. Thryft   2/25/2013 12:49:58 PM
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I agree with a.saji--this model of service assumes customers know exactly what they want and that there's no problem with the food served. How do you tell the robot waiter "There's a fly in my soup" or "My steak is overdone"?

 

Jack Rupert, PE
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Re: Fast Food Robots
Jack Rupert, PE   2/25/2013 4:04:44 PM
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Ann, I got the impression that this particular application is almost like a a sit-down version of fast food.  Not too much variation and a human enters the order to begin with.  I would imagine that the idea would be something like these self-check-out stations at grocery stores (that I refuse to use for anything over 3 items).  If someone does have an issue, there is probably an "overseer" available handling a number of tables.

Ann R. Thryft
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Re: Fast Food Robots
Ann R. Thryft   2/26/2013 3:35:47 PM
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Jack, I get the same impression of the service model, but I'm not assuming anything. It's not clear from the article what recourse customers have when there's a problem, and there are always problems, eventually.

a.saji
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Re: Fast Food Robots
a.saji   2/27/2013 10:23:07 AM
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Yes Ann we should go with technology but not 100%. Its a must that there should be humans too involved in decision making process. If not it will be a disaster

Ann R. Thryft
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Re: Fast Food Robots
Ann R. Thryft   2/27/2013 2:39:24 PM
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I completely agree, a.saji: a mix of humans and robots is better than all robots.

Charles Murray
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Re: Fast Food Robots
Charles Murray   3/1/2013 6:37:11 PM
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Reading this story and listening to the ensuing discussion, it scares me to think of how pervsive robots will be in 50 years. Just look at how automated phone systems have proliferated in the past 30 years. And think of how frustrating those can be.

Ann R. Thryft
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Re: Fast Food Robots
Ann R. Thryft   3/5/2013 12:59:16 PM
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Chuck, I think those are totally legitimate concerns. I hope designers of these systems--and more importantly, the implementers, not just the engineers--will take those experiences under consideration and save us all some grief. There's a lot of work going on to foster better robot/human interaction and communication. But note I said "I hope" not "I think."

William K.
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Re: Fast Food Robots
William K.   3/8/2013 8:00:54 PM
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Ann, what eventually came to mind as I read all of the posts about robotic servers was that one line from the first Star Wars movie, as Luke and the two 'droids go to enter a cantina, and the bouncer stops the two robots with "we don't allow your kind in here". There is a place for robotics and automatia, which are a cute gimmick, and a place where there is simply no adequate substitute for a real human. Robots of whatever type are simply a "different kind", and although it may sound like prejudice, it is not, but there are times when it is a wonderful relief to get away from all of that programmed presence. Of course, that is the opinio of one who works with technology and fights with it daily.

Ann R. Thryft
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Re: Fast Food Robots
Ann R. Thryft   3/11/2013 4:47:29 PM
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William, I also work with technology daily, usually the technology that either gets in the way of, or helps facilitate, getting my job done. Having recently suffered through (sometimes concurrent) internet and phone outages or access problems, I know what you mean about fighting with it. I agree that there should be tech-free zones here and there, but what and where they are is open to a lot of debate.

William K.
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Re: Fast Food Robots
William K.   3/11/2013 7:55:29 PM
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Ann, you are absolutely correct. At one job a major portion was writing test machine control programs in a language called TBOSS, in a dialect called UVOSS. The compiler/linker was very user hostile, and so each day of that was often a fight. Of course now we have windows and all of the other programs designed to alter the way that we think. So it is still a fight, but the enemy is both more devious and more polite. The old days were better.

Ann R. Thryft
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Re: Fast Food Robots
Ann R. Thryft   3/12/2013 12:52:41 PM
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William, your tale sounds like so many I've heard over the years from programmer friends. From the user standpoint, I'm just very thankful for the Mac GUI.

William K.
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Re: Fast Food Robots
William K.   3/12/2013 4:20:59 PM
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I offer no criticism of those who choose the "MAC" mode of operation, but I also champion the freedom that allows us a number of choices, at least sort of choices. I dispise the monopoly that keeps taking away our non-bloateware choices, although it is obvious that the freedoms we embrace allow that monopoly to exist. Freedom supports both the good, the bad, and the really ugly.

Ann R. Thryft
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Re: Fast Food Robots
Ann R. Thryft   3/12/2013 9:54:09 PM
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Well said about freedom of choice. I still think the Mac OS--at least pre-X--was highly innovative and easy to work with as a user.  That's when I could still fix it myself. I'm sorry to see Apple get so successful only because it went to their heads somewhat and, like great big MS, they also began releasing bloatware. But at least it's much more elegant bloatware!

Elizabeth M
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Re: Fast Food Robots
Elizabeth M   2/20/2013 11:06:06 AM
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Ah, Cabe, so you already have nefarious plans for these robots. :) But I see your point, this is exactly the kind of thing they could be open for in less polite societies, especially when intelligent hacker types feel like playing practical jokes. Without trying to sound too much like the plot of a bad scifi film, the robots could even be dangerous in the wrong hands.

Cabe Atwell
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Re: Fast Food Robots
Cabe Atwell   2/20/2013 4:48:53 PM
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Indeed, the bots could cause harm. But I am comfortable in the fact we will not see them for decades. You can pay a worker minimum wage now, or the bot at full price. Which would a business owner go for? I'd say the later. I have seen industrial robots leased at extreme prices in the USA. Again, server robots will likely be some time away.

However, if the butler robots of the 1980s is any indication, we want them to exist ASAP.

C

r3son8tr
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Re: Fast Food Robots
r3son8tr   2/19/2013 12:01:49 PM
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This will end when the robots unionize.

robatnorcross
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Re: Fast Food Robots
robatnorcross   2/19/2013 3:41:42 PM
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First: under-employed engineers had to work at fast food joints. Now THEY are being replaced by robots. I guess the engineers will have to wash dishes now. No wait- we (engineers) already invented dish washing machines. May be we can take the orders from customers. Oh crap - we also invented kiosks that take my order at the local deli. I guess we could have cleaned the floors except other damned engineers invented vacuum cleaning robots.

I wonder if my food stamps work for just EATING at the restaurants.

I don't even have to park my car outside because Toyota, Honda (or someone) is making cars that park themselves.

I guess the only thing left is to pick tomatos because we managed to run off the only humans that were doing that.

Greg M. Jung
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Replacement Workers
Greg M. Jung   2/18/2013 9:25:32 PM
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I think that these robots make more novelty and entertainment sense than financial sense in China.  I don't see them replacing Chinese restaurant workers soon due to their high investment cost and the lower hourly wages in China.  However, if U.S. restaurants find a way to profitably incorporate these types of robots in their workstream, I wouldn't be surprised if we start seeing them co-exist with human workers in the future.

naperlou
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Re: Replacement Workers
naperlou   2/19/2013 9:35:05 AM
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I agree with Greg.  China is not the place you might need these.  In the US we have people coming in illegally to work in the food service industry becuase the jobs are not interesting and many Americans will not do them.  People come for these jobs because they are better than the life they leave behind.  In China people come from the rural areas to work in the cities for the same reason.

I have seen these types of robots before.  In about 2000 my wife and I went to Yo Susho after a play in London.  They had a conveyor belt for the sushi and a drinks robot that followed a track in the floor and talked to the customers, asking if they wanted a drink.  They really were just a drink cart with a processor and did not look anything like these.  I wonder if that is the case today.  I think it would be fun, and at least it is novel, for now.

apresher
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Robotic Wait Staff
apresher   2/19/2013 8:28:29 AM
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This concept is interesting but I wonder if it will ever move beyond novelty status.  Certainly for highly repetitive chores, such as washing dishes, robotics could make inroads.  But given the high initial cost and lack of flexibility, not sure how much impact it will have.  Interesting story to say the least.  Thanks.

sensor pro
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Re: Robotic Wait Staff
sensor pro   2/19/2013 10:51:48 AM
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I agree with you. It is a gimmick or novely for a time being.

After iniial hype, I think it will evaporate into history.

Ann R. Thryft
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Re: Robotic Wait Staff
Ann R. Thryft   2/19/2013 3:40:13 PM
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I agree with sensor pro--this is too weird!

greenewr
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I don't go to a restaurant to interact with machines...
greenewr   2/19/2013 9:33:28 AM
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Asside from the basic process of eating for energy, I go for the human interaction.  A waiter/waitress with a good attitude makes the experience pleasent.  As much as I like robots for their engineering and increasing flexibility, I do not want them providing food service.  I find it ironic that China has introduced this activity, when Labor there is extremely inexpensive.

OLD_CURMUDGEON
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MORE thoughts on food service robots
OLD_CURMUDGEON   2/19/2013 9:37:00 AM
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#1)  In my younger days, about a century ago, restaurant workers were NOT subject to the same minimum wage laws as other non-restaurant workers.  IF that has changed on a state-by-state basis, I have no current knowledge, so the entry elsewhere MAY very well be true!

#2)  This development seems very ironic, considering that China IS the MOST populous nation on the face of the Earth.  Logic would generally dictate that the "powers to be" would seek to create jobs that MAXIMIZE the country's able-bodied work force, NOT attempt to MINIMIZE it by technological revolution.

#3)  In many major U.S. cities, especially in the northern tier, just about everyone who works is a member of some union, whether it be a dishwashers' union, or servers' union, etc.  Even stenographers (quaint, old term) no doubt are part of a union......  I can't see the union bosses allowing thse robots to incur on their turf.  Look at the example of the UAW when the BIG 3 (or 4?) first installed robots into the vehicle manufacturing business.  The outcry was heard 'round the world!

William K.
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Robot restaurant help in China.
William K.   2/19/2013 6:14:30 PM
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This is an amazing gimmick that shows what some will do to attract customers. I have eaten in a few restaurants in Dong Guang City and always found the waitstaff eager to be of service, and quite pleasant to deal with. Besides that, it seems that each of these robots cost at least 2 years pay for a well poaid wait-person, at least in that city. So this must be justa way to attract those with more money to spend who are in search of something new.

Possibly a robot cook could be a worthwhile addition for some reataurants, but I don't think that I would like robotic waitstaff at all, tips notwithstanding. There is a lot to be said for a good human presence. Leave the robots to loading and unloading those dangerous stamping presses, where they are a real benefit to society.

Elizabeth M
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Re: Robot restaurant help in China.
Elizabeth M   2/20/2013 11:24:06 AM
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It's nice to have a local perspective on this, William K. Seems like generally we're all with you on the human presence, at least in a restaurant. Though as some others have said, self-checkout is fine at the grocery store because it generally is faster. Personally, i don't think I really need human interaction for that particular chore!

Ann R. Thryft
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Re: Robot restaurant help in China.
Ann R. Thryft   2/20/2013 6:03:05 PM
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Some people--not me--would love to see these in French restaurants, to replace French waiters.

Charles Murray
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Re: Robot restaurant help in China.
Charles Murray   2/20/2013 8:57:17 PM
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You get the "best comment of the week" award, Ann. That's quite an honor considering the week isn't over yet.

Ann R. Thryft
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Re: Robot restaurant help in China.
Ann R. Thryft   2/21/2013 12:23:54 PM
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Why thanks, Chuck. I take it you're not fond of French waiters--or at least, waiters in French restaurants?

Charles Murray
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Re: Robot restaurant help in China.
Charles Murray   2/21/2013 12:57:11 PM
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I've always suspected that they think I'm not good enough to be walking into a French restaurant, Ann. A robot might not be friendlier, but at least it wouldn't assume I'm Homer Simpson.

Ann R. Thryft
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Re: Robot restaurant help in China.
Ann R. Thryft   2/22/2013 11:37:32 AM
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Chuck speaks to the snooty aspect I meant in French waiters. I haven't been to France in years. From what Elizabeth said, it sounds like waiters there now are just obnoxious in the same ways they are everywhere else.



Elizabeth M
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Re: Robot restaurant help in China.
Elizabeth M   2/21/2013 3:49:05 AM
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I agree with Chuck, Ann--another funny and French-related comment! I know exactly what you mean...and it's the same with some staff members here in Portugal when it comes to service oriented jobs. A friendly, attentive robot would be far better than someone who audibly sighs and rolls their eyes when you need service because it takes you away from whatever phone call they were on or magazine they were reading.

Cobra
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Times have changed
Cobra   3/7/2013 4:25:47 PM
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The first one I saw was food delivered via a model train in the 1950's.  Times have changed.

warren@fourward.com
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Robot Workers!
warren@fourward.com   3/8/2013 2:29:11 PM
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Wow!  What a great idea.  No tax forms to fill out, no payroll, no SS tax, no workman's comp, no sexual harrassment suits, no sick leave, no vacation pay, no holidays, no dress code, no arguments, no disagreements, no complaining about work considitions, no maternity leave, no union hassles, and no promotions and wage increases.  What a perfect solution for the 21st century.

Now if only the customers had any money...

 

Elizabeth M
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Re: Robot Workers!
Elizabeth M   3/11/2013 5:52:07 AM
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Yes, these are all things that would be eliminated by robot workers, Warren! So it would be a lot less hassle on employers, but then you would have to think about maintenance and AI updates for the robots, what might happen in case they fail mechanically and other considerations that you don't need with human workers. It would still probably favor the robot in terms of being an easier solution if you look at the big picture, but then again, no change comes for free and no solution is perfect.

warren@fourward.com
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Re: Robot Workers!
warren@fourward.com   3/11/2013 6:17:04 AM
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Yes, Elizabeth, progress has its drawbacks. The Pony Express (dear to us in Missouri) was replaced by the railroad. But this was replaced by the telegraph, which put them out of work. And this was replaced by wireless, well done actually, which cost a lot of jobs. And this was replaced by the telephone, which eventually killed totally telegraph ( Western Union), and this has almost been killed off by cell phones. And be the Internet has almost killed off the Post Office. The onslaught of technology has cost jobs and must stop before we develop psychic abilities and need no technology, or we will have to bring back the Pony Express for those who can't. And we will need a lot more than 120 riders!

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Focus on Fundamentals -- a new Design News webinar series -- kicks off April 29 with How to Select Drives for Robotics Applications. Don't miss it!
Research and other advancements in the realms of robotics, diagnostic and treatment devices, nanotechnology, and medical implants may one day make humans superior versions of their natural selves.
Samsung's fitness-oriented smart watch features a curved super AMOLED touchscreen display.
Unlike industrial robots, which suffered a slight overall slump in 2012, service robots continue to be increasingly in demand. The majority are used for defense, such as unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs); and agriculture, such as milking robots.
Design News Webinar Series
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Focus on Fundamentals consists of 45-minute on-line classes that cover a host of technologies. You learn without leaving the comfort of your desk. All classes are taught by subject-matter experts and all are archived. So if you can't attend live, attend at your convenience.
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