Business

Say 'hello' to the robot next to you

Say 'hello' to the robot next to you

At the Dawadan restaurant in the Dutch city of Maastricht, Amy, Aker and James scoot back and forth from the bar serving drinks to tables filled with customers, happy to be socialising again as lockdown restrictions ease. The three are fast, efficient, and never forget an order.

As they move across the floor, trays in hand, they sport smiles on their faces and occasionally a frown – even the best servers have a bad day. Nothing out of the ordinary so far, you might be thinking. But these restaurant employees are different.

Their service has been described as stiff and customers are required to pick up their own drinks from the tray – a faux pas in the world of hospitality. But they can be forgiven; Amy, Aker and James are robots after all.

Drive two-and-a-half-hours from Maastricht to the coastal city of Renesse and you will find another eatery doing the same. Shaosong Hu, who owns The Royal Palace restaurant, first saw robots serving food in China last year. Now, he is preparing to set his own automatons to work as he reopens for business in a “new normal” shaped by sanitizer and social distancing.

Everyone to the fore, including robots

The two Dutch restaurants are notable for their early adoption of robotics, but the fact is, the shift was coming anyway. You see, global crises don’t so much create change as speed it up.

The development of robots for commercial use has been underway for years, but the arrival of coronavirus has accelerated the trend - and F&B is not the only industry to be drafting in androids to help with the “war” effort.

Take a walk in Singapore and you’re likely to encounter Boston Dynamics’ robotic dog who patrols the city’s parks reminding people of their social distancing obligations. Or, if you were a graduating student in Japan this spring, the Newme robot from OhmniLabs’ might well have been your replacement at the ceremony.

Draped in gowns and with a computer tablet for a head, the robots – as creepy as they sound – allow those unable to attend their graduations in person to receive their degrees virtually. Meanwhile, a small town outside of London is operating a fleet of six-wheeled, knee-high robots, that deliver groceries and medical prescriptions to local residents.

Helping cope with a crisis

Robots are playing a direct role in overcoming the health crisis too. As I write, Danish disinfection robots are rolling around the wards and corridors of hospitals across China, deploying powerful UV lights that destroy the building blocks of the virus. According to reports, the robots are able to learn hospital layouts and can work with or without the presence of medical staff.

Then there’s Zora Bots, a Belgian company that has developed a multifunctional robot capable of screening patient temperatures, identifying people not wearing masks, monitoring patient abnormalities and delivering supplies. Five of the robots are currently operating in Rwanda courtesy of the UN.

Right now, these robots are playing an important role in keeping us (relatively) happy and healthy. But what happens when a vaccine is found? When populations can rub shoulders, shake hands and share a meal once again?

What of the robots then? Will the world still need a wired-up workforce, or will human nature compel us to seek out, well… human nature, at the earliest opportunity?

The world of work has irreversibly changed, that’s for sure. But the way I see it, virus or no virus, there’s plenty of room for everyone. Whether its serving drinks or crunching numbers, robots should do what they do best, and they should help us do what we do, even better.

I believe in a world where humans lead and machines learn; a world where artificial intelligence alleviates humans from mundane tasks and frees them up to unleash creativity and potential.

Will robots find themselves on the scrap heap as people return to work? I doubt it. But there will always be a place for human imperfection, even if that means running late or spilling a drink or two.

- Tommy Weir is CEO of enaible: AI-powered leadership and author of “Leadership Dubai Style”. Contact him at [email protected]