Man vs Robot

(17 /09 /2014)

Going out for dinner is one of life’s simple pleasures – you’re greeted as you walk in, you’re seated, the menu and specials are explained to you, your order is taken, your meal is delivered cooked to order and your empty plates are removed at the end of the meal.  And then there’s dessert! When you leave, you pay your bill either at the table or the counter, thanking the staff for the service.  The experience is personable, conversational, individual and more often than not, enjoyable – how could it not be when you’ve barely had to lift a finger?

Now imagine, in this era of automation – think cars that can reverse park themselves – that a robotic server takes you to your table, you decipher the menu and specials yourself and then order via computer tablet or phone app, another robot delivers your meal ten minutes later before whisking away the dishes, which you load onto the robot’s tray yourself, just as you’re finishing your meal.  Dessert can of course be ordered electronically and will again be delivered the same way.  At the end of your meal, you pay via a kiosk at the table before walking out the door.  At no time, has there been interaction with a human staff member – imagine if you’d been dining on your own?

This scenario may seem futuristic but it’s already here.  Several restaurant chains throughout the world have already gone down the automation path by replacing human servers with robots and providing an app or tablet at the table for ordering while payment is made via a kiosk or app.  Some  restaurants are using food preparation robots in the kitchen to dice, slice, mix, pound, cook and assemble fully formed hamburgers. And in a chain of hotels in the United States, hospitality robots or bellhops that shuttle items from the hotel lobby desk to guest rooms, are currently being trialled. In a world where convenience is often king, hospitality companies are aiming to provide more efficient service – customers can be quickly attended to, human error can be removed, service and food items are uniform, staff illness has little impact on the “machine” and it creates efficiency and labour savings.

But at what cost?  Jobs are eliminated and unemployment potentially increases.  Gone is the individualised, personable service that can only be provided by people, and while this may not be of high concern in the fast food sector, fine dining would simply not be the same.  Would checking into a 5-star hotel and being guided to your room by a silent, robotic bellhop rather than a human who can tell you all about the hotel, city and sights to visit, be of great concern?  Consumer convenience is certainly of high importance in the hospitality sector, but how far should automation go and how much do consumers want to do themselves? Already, computers have been used to “create” dishes, putting together surprising combinations of ingredients that haven’t yet been considered by human chefs – would you been be keen to try a dish that hasn’t been tested previously?

Experience is a key part of the consumer decision process, while creating savings and maintaining profitability is integral to managing a successful business.  The trade off between savings and consumer experience must be considered before going down the path of automation – it is not one size fits all and human labour will always be necessary.  Perhaps there is an opportunity to take advantage of robots and build them into the customer experience?  Do your research, ask your customers what they want, see what works and what doesn’t – but it seems robots are here to stay; it’s now a matter of working out how to best use them to your advantage.


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