Removing humans out of the equation – Automated restaurants in China

These two images caught my attention recently:

Automated restaurant in Harbin

Automated restaurant in Harbin, image from

automated restaurant in harbin

Automated restaurant in Harbin, image from

They may not be news to you but if you haven´t already come across them on the net, they were taken in a restaurant in the northeastern Chinese city of Harbin. This once small rural settlement founded by Russians and settled mainly by Jewish immigrants, has now become internationally renowkn for its Winter Ice festival.

Harbin winter festival
Harbin winter festival

But back to the restaurant. This somewhat unique eatery in Harbin uses 20 robots to cook meals (yes, cook meals) and deliver dishes to its amused patrons.  It takes two hours to have them recharged for a five hour shift. No cigarret breaks, no gossiping, no surfing the net on mobile devices – quite the ideal workers. Besides, the robots are able to display more than ten facial expressions and say basic welcoming sentences to customers.

 These friendly members of staff cost the restaurant 200,000 to 300,000 yuan ($31,500 – $47,000) – realiable, yes, efficient, yes, cheap, not. Well, let´s think about it in relative terms.  Say the average wage for a Chinese worker in an urban area is approximateley $12 to $15,ooo a year, the owners of the restaurant would have recovered their investment in about three years without having to worry about the additional problems that come with employing a human like sickness, arguments, late arrivals, etc.

It´s not the first time restaurant owners have attempted to take the human element out of the equation. In 2010 the Dalau Rebot Restaurant restaurant located in Jinan, in China´s Shandong province opened with six custom built robot servers and two more feminine robots that greeted customers as they entered. These automated waiters delivered over 100 customers´meals by “riding” bicycles along a marked track.  In Bangkok, the Hajime  restaurant uses a single Samurai robot to replace humans in their serving duties. Wait, there´s more: you don´t need anyone to take your orders, you can do it in convenient touch-screen devices attached to every table. To top it all of, when he has some spare free-time in its hands, the Hajime samurai  delights patrons dancing to Asian pop music.

There certainly is an amusement factor to these restaurants, there is no denying that. At the rate they are growing they don´t seem to pose a threat to human employment but if we put things in context for a moment and if we just imagine robots continue to replace humans in these and in other endeavours, particularly in manufacturing, hospitality and services sector, then things start to get a little grim.

The economic boom in China has long been driven by a seemingly limitless labour force producing goods at a cost the rest of the world can’t match.  But manufacturers are increasingly inclined to purchase industrial robots which, in the long term, are more affordable than a labour force that is now demanding, rightly so, higher wages. Besides, with robots in the floor, there is no danger of being accused of exploiting workers nor do they have to worry about improving working conditions and environment.

The automation of Chinese factories is happening at such a rate that China is now forecast to take over Japan and South Korea as the world’s biggest market for robots. As this occurs millions of white collar jobs and service jobs in retail, distribution, food service and other areas may ultimately be at risk. Because, let´s be realistic, what is stopping a robot from making a stir fry or some perfectly shaped dumplings?  The result may be continuing high unemployment, stagnant wages and reduced consumer spending in China and in many other parts of the world.

But, as my husband always says, this is my opinion. What are your impressions on this?