Chinese restaurants are using robot waiters to serve food to patrons. The robots can ferry food to tables, while other animatronic staff help to prepare food in the kitchens – performing straightforward tasks such as squirting cooking oil into pans.
Song Yugang is the owner of one such eaterie, the Tian Waike restaurant in Kunshan, southeast China. He says that using robots means that his normal staff roster can be cut by two-thirds.
The restaurant showcases the products of Pangolin, a leading Chinese robot manufacturer. Similar restaurants have opened in Harbin and Chengdu. Pangolin claims that it has orders for thousands of food service robots and that it is thinking about opening similar restaurants overseas.
According to the China Robot Industry Alliance (CRIA), China is now the world's largest consumer of robots, after overtaking Japan. The CRIA claims that China now buys a fifth of global robot output and that more than 36,000 robots were sold to the Chinese market last year, representing an annual rise of 36%. CRIA president Song Xiaogang predicts the figure will increase to 50,000 this year.
Growth in sales of robots is not confined to China. In October, Oxford University released a study which said that 47% of the US workforce could be replaced by robots over the next two decades.
For now the robots being marketed frequently have markedly limited functionality. Pangolin's waiters cannot talk or perform skilled manual operations.
Over in Norway, however, scientists have designed and built a food service robot in the lab to automate the process of extracting breast fillets from chickens. This is a task normally carried out by skilled human workers.
"Our aim is to automate absolutely everything we can think of on the food production line," says Ekrem Misimi at SINTEF, an independent Scandinavian research organisation. The goal is to make Norwegian food production more sustainable, in terms of profitability and efficient use of raw materials.