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Grabbing a byte? Robot servers chip in



NEW DELHI: Excuse me. You are in my way. Would you please make a room for me? Thank you.” With that sentence, a scarf-sporting waitress at a vegetarian restaurant in Thane has been “making room” for herself in selfies, birthday videos and the attention spans of restless kids for close to a year now.
Though officially nameless, Baby Doll was how Shailendra and Poonam Maurya, the restaurant owners, secretly referred to this made-in-Japan, Android-based robot waitress worth about Rs 10 lakh while testing it in their shuttered premises before introducing it in November last year. Very soon, Baby Doll was gliding across the restaurant’s grey floor to various tables, lulling hyperactive kids into hypnotic silence, delivering birthday cakes on cue and drawing in patrons from as far as Dahisar.

Today, there are scratches on its blue-and-white exterior from where chairs accidentally elbowed it, its tray has come loose on one side after a kid decided to dangle from its forearm and it doesn’t serve much, except the bill, since a soup spillage episode temporarily shut it down. Its allure, like its item-girl nickname, is now slightly jaded, but elsewhere in the country, Baby Doll’s newly minted Android sisters are living it up.
Awash in the glow of recent media attention are Guwahati’s traditionally dressed, locally assembled Palki, Bengaluru’s shiny, imported Arya, Ramya, Zoey, Alice, Sansa and Kannur’s Aleena, Helen and Jane, who spout greetings in English and regional languages.

The trend of robot-themed restaurants began when an Indo-Thai restaurant, named for its robot attraction, opened on the outskirts of Chennai with sari-clad Android robots.
India has since sprouted a rash of mechanical waitresses over the last two years, including Natasha, a fully functional humanoid robot sculpted by an 18-year-old restaurant owner in Delhi.
Operated by tablets, these Android-based robots — which run 24 hours after charging — are programmed to bring orders to the right tables and are a hit with the family crowd. And they are not here to steal jobs, promise restaurateurs. “In fact, they increase the need for manpower as we have a crew of operators and technicians to fix them,” said Kailash Sunderrajan, general manager of the restaurant. His team members underwent training in China on operating robots and troubleshooting.

“Come for the robots, stay for the food,” seems to be the invisible tagline of these restaurateurs. Sunderrajan recalls the team toying with many themes before zeroing in on robots for their “wow factor”. Thanks to specialised utensils such as flatter soup bowls, these robots are able to deliver even gravy-based dishes while their “more intelligent” receptionist counterparts startle first-time patrons by guiding them to tables and selfie-points.
Curiosity brings in people from as far as Kashmir, says Sunderrajan, adding that their 120-seat outlet in Bengaluru, which came up last month, is struggling to accommodate 1,200 customers a day. The Chennai and Coimbatore outlets too have similar problems with the robotic synapses of their Android receptionists, who are capable of recognising faces, lighting up often at the names of repeat customers. In fact, so popular is the theme that one robot-themed restaurant in south India, we are told, has even indulged in some clandestine poaching of manpower.

Six months ago, it was to lure spicy-food-preferring youngsters to his bland-food-serving ethnic establishment that Guwahati-based S N Farid decided to enlist the services of his plumber, electrician and other earthy technicians. Together, this motley crew configured the long-haired Assamese Android waitress, Palki, that welcomes customers with a “nomoskar” and herbal juice. While Palki has increased Farid’s average footfalls “by 50% a day” and tricked children into tucking into his healthy delicacies, such as a sour elephant-fruit-based dish, Farid, who is “not a technical guy but a simple person”, shrivels away from getting into the details of the robot’s various technical stumbles so far. The managers of the Thane restaurant, though, have no qualms admitting to teething troubles.

The impact of the robots goes beyond gimmick. “People, especially the elderly, even develop an emotional connect with the robots,” says Sunderrajan, recalling guests whose orders come suffixed with requests such as: “I want to be served by Aisha.” As a tradition, his restaurant places a bowl in which patrons can drop in suggestions for names — chits that have included the gamut ranging from Harini to Alexa.

For customers, the robot is as much an attraction as it is a welcome distraction. When Thane’s Amit Saha first took his nephews, 12-year-old Aukun and 8-year-old Rejaul, to the restaurant, they kept running behind the robot so Saha and his brother didn’t have to worry about keeping them entertained while sampling the fusion starters. Today, Saha says the little “Terminator” fans keep insisting on going back to the “robot restaurant”.
Though all owners universally dismiss fears of artificial intelligence triumphing over humans, India can rely on its own incompetency for the answer. On a recent lean evening, Baby Doll’s gait was especially slow. She seemed to be ambling instead of gliding. When asked why, the manager explained: “WiFi is down.”

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