Robotic waiter, my bill, please!
The impact of Artificial Intelligence on the foodservice industry
Prof. Alexiei Dingli
There seems to be a trend in developed countries where citizens prefer white-collar positions rather than manually intensive jobs.
The reasons are various; such people aspire for better wages, work in a comfortable environment and improve one’s social status. While these choices are understandable, this situation creates a gap in the national job supply, thus negatively affecting those industries dependent on these workers. A sector that has been grossly affected is the foodservice industry.
This problem was accentuated further in countries where the dependency on tourism is relatively high. In some cases, these countries even had to import workers from abroad to sustain the sector’s demands. But while this problem was brewing, a novel idea was floated around by some organisations to use Robots instead of human workers.
Some people found it absurd. There’s indeed a capital cost involved because Robots don’t come cheap but let’s not forget that Robots don’t get tired, don’t need a holiday, are not paid and are rather precise in what they do. But in reality, if we had to go forward with it, what would it entail?
When we mention Robots, our minds tend to venture to the famous Hollywood movies where digital beings in a humanoid form accede to our every request. These kinds of robots exist. Boston Dynamics, a Hyundai company, created the most advanced robots in the world.
They can walk like us, jump like a kangaroo, run like a cheetah and carry heavy loads like elephants. Of course, if we get these Robots to service a restaurant, it would be an overkill apart from the fact that it will plug a hole in your pockets, which is a few million euros deep.
But a Robot is nothing more than a shell that conceals an Artificial Intelligence (AI) program that essentially does most of the magic. It can analyse the situation, make autonomous decisions and take specific actions.
The AI program can still do many things without requiring the outside shell of a humanoid Robot. Let me give you a few examples:
- It can easily take bookings 24/7 from any channel, irrespective of whether through social media or even through traditional phones.
- The bookings get analysed by the AI, who predicts demand and suggest items that need to be purchased. Such a process helps to reduce waste and assists the chef in his planning.
- When the clients arrive at the restaurant, an electronic host will greet them and point them to their table.
- Once they are seated, a chatbot located on a screen on top of their table greets them. It will then highlight the daily specials and help them place their order while taking note of any specific dietary requirements. The possibilities offered are various. Rather than being restricted to the items in the menu, customers can sort them by ingredients (in case of allergies) or even by calorific value, thus supporting them to make informed decisions.
- While the chef prepares the order, the clients can customise the ambience of their table with personalised lighting, visuals, or music, which only affects their space. This customisation can also be available when they book, thus making sure they find the place ready on arrival. They can also choose several forms of entertainment such as a pre-recorded band or even a live football match.
- As soon as the food is ready, an autonomous trolly gets the plates and takes them to the customers. Such a system is already operational in various places. One of them is called “Aglio Kim”, whose job is to serve restaurants in South Korea. It can carry a maximum of 30Kgs and serve up to four tables at once. Since Aglio Kim’s digital brain contains a restaurant map, it can navigate the restaurant while avoiding obstacles. The trolley can also speak in English and have limited interaction with the clients.
- Towards the end of the meal, the clients ask the chatbot located on their table to pay, and they use a contactless card to pass on the money.
- The system can also offer additional services such as selling tickets to nearby attractions or shows they can attend after the meal. It can also summon a taxi to take them home. The possibilities are practically endless.
As one can see from the above examples, we are not talking about rocket science and these solutions are no longer confined within Hollywood movies. The technology is here, and it’s available for anyone to use. It doesn’t even require deep pockets. And even if one is still unsure about it, why not try one of them rather than go for a full-blown AI system.
In most cases, these systems have a quick return on investment, thus helping restaurant owners to invest in more comprehensive solutions which offer significant savings. We’ve been trying to fix our problems with the same mentality for many years. The time has come to be bold, think outside the box, use the available technologies and start benefitting from them today.
Prof. Alexiei Dingli
Prof Alexiei Dingli is a Professor of AI at the University of Malta. He has been conducting research and working in the field of AI for more than two decades, assisting different companies to implement AI solutions. His work has been rated World Class by international experts and he won several local and international awards (such as those by the European Space Agency, the World Intellectual Property Organization and the United Nations to name a few). He has published several peer-reviewed publications and formed part of the Malta.AI task-force which was set up by the Maltese government, aimed at making Malta one of the top AI countries in the world.