Robot waiters are only beginning to find jobs in China and Thailand (see also this story), but an American entrepreneur beat them to the punch – by about thirty years! Back in 1983 Shayne Hayashi bought a pair of Japanese robots to bus his restaurant tables at Two Panda Delicatessen in Pasadena, California. The robots, Tanbo R-1 and R-2, crammed the aisles at 137cm (4’6″) and 82kg (180 lbs). At a cost of $20,000 (about $45,000 adjusted for inflation) each, they were more expensive than they were efficient given the technological limitations of the time.
A blurb from the June 10th, 1983 Miami News suggests the robots were easily confused on the job:
The pair… tend to blur their words drunkenly when their 12-volt power cells run down, and they’ve been known to drop food and spin in circles when police radios operate nearby. They’re programmed to be nice to customers — “Will there be anything else?” and “See you tomorrow” — in Japanese, English and Spanish. Patrons whose commands confuse the pair get the response: “That’s not my problem,” accompanied by a short blast of disco music to which the bubbleheads dance back and forth.
And despite owning the exclusive distribution rights in the Americas, Hayashi found that maintaining the robots for even one restaurant was impossible. By the time he was interviewed by Nation’s Restaurant News, his robots had already been working tables for three years, but he had run into problems with a buyer:
He did sell one, to a restaurateur in Modesto, Calif. “But he couldn’t take care of it,” Hayashi recounted. “All the time I had to drive out there and fix it.” Hayashi wound up buying it back. And how do Tanbos R-1 and R-2 rate as waiters? Hayashi admitted they break down often, and while they can find a table with an order, “when someone crosses in front of it, it stops. Some people move a chair or something or move the table, and we’re in trouble.”
Alas, the main function the twins serve is as a tax deduction: Hayashi reported that he is able to deduct $1,000 per month and pay no state payroll tax. “Also,” he added, “they’re great at kids’ birthday parties. They love them.”
The robots were also mentioned in a 1985 National Geographic children’s book Science: It’s Changing Your World. It was an exciting time to speculate about the future of robots, what with the incredibly popular examples seen at the Tsukuba Expo that year.
The scene at the Two Panda may be unusual today. But it will become more and more common in years to come. In the home, robots may do the dusting and vacuuming. They may wake you up in the morning and serve you breakfast in bed. In shops, offices, factories, and fields, robots will do many jobs that people find boring, difficult, or dangerous. Because the jobs are of that nature, robots often do them better than humans. Robots have no minds to wander or worry. They always do exactly what they’re told. In fact, that’s all they can do.
Things may be moving much more slowly than they had imagined, but their predictions are slowly coming true.