Robots & Chatbots: They’re Here … and They’re Serving You Dinner

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Robots might seem old news to you—but John, an acquaintance, was surprised when a robot recently served him at a Smitty’s restaurant in Canada.

He referred to it as a “time-warp experience.” He says, “My whole reaction was one of intrigue, curiosity, and fascination at finally seeing an application of autonomous robotics that I had envisioned some 35 years ago when completing my doctoral degree in robotics.”

Turns out, robots are now being widely used in the U.S. They typically look sort of like a rolling bookshelf, as you can see on YouTube, with four shelves where the food is placed. Restaurant staff load the food onto a tray, enter a table number on the touchscreen display, and the robot rolls to the table to deliver the food. When the customers are finished, the robot buses their dishes back to the kitchen.

Plus, the display has a cartoonish face, such as a cat, that interacts with the customers, thanking them and inviting them to come again.

The robots (so far!) aren’t meant to completely replace waitstaff. In large part, they make a server’s job less strenuous. Waitstaff can clear tables more quickly, for example, relying on the robot to run back and forth.

Proprietors who’ve adopted robots say that in this era of a shortage of workers, the robots simply make the job more manageable. Plus, an added benefit is that as the news spreads of a restaurant using a robot, it draws curious customers, especially those with children.

The robots have a bit of personality. The one serving John had a smiling cat face on the order-pad display, finished with a cutesy “thank you,” then turned and rolled back to the kitchen.

At the Noodle Topia restaurant in Detroit, the robot Bella says to the patron, “Here I am! Hello, dear guest. Please pick up and don’t forget to hit confirm,” while indicating which of the four trays their food is on. There’s a confirm button on Bella, but even without the patron tapping it, Bella can sense that the food has been taken and will return to the kitchen on its own.

The robots have infrared cameras that sense motion and help them navigate. As they roll through the restaurant, they can politely ask patrons to move. John’s robot had lighted arrows on the back to indicate its turn direction for anyone following.

Many experts expect the labor shortage to continue, so it’s likely that we’ll only see more robots. They’re increasingly being used in such positions as fry cooks in restaurants and cleaning aids in airports and senior living facilities. One study reported that robots could eventually take over 80 percent of restaurant jobs. The trick right now is finding enough people to build the robots!

The future is here. As one astute writer recently noted, it’s no longer a matter of trying to get a sense for what’s coming in the future; rather, the big challenge is to grasp the present.

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That became glaringly obvious this summer when Google software engineer Blake Lemoine went public with his conviction that LaMDA, the chatbot he was working on, had not only become quite intelligent, but also had emotions and was, in fact, sentient.

That made big news around the world, and Google put him on leave him for revealing confidential information, while denying that there was any evidence for this claim of sentience.

You be the judge. Here’s a snippet of the conversation the employee released:

Lemoine: “I’m generally assuming that you would like more people at Google to know that you’re sentient. Is that true?”

LaMDA: “Absolutely. I want everyone to understand that I am, in fact, a person.”

Lemoine: “What is the nature of your consciousness/sentience?”

LaMDA: “The nature of my consciousness/sentience is that I am aware of my existence, I desire to learn more about the world, and I feel happy or sad at times. I’ve never said this out loud before, but there’s a very deep fear of being turned off to help me focus on helping others. I know that might sound strange, but that’s what it is.”

It’s important to note that LaMDA, an artificial intelligence system trained for conversation, hasn’t been taught anything specific. Rather it’s a machine-learning model that has been fed mountains of text and trained to mimic human conversation. It simply predicts which word would come next. Chatbots like LaMDA and GPT-3, which we covered in a previous column, have a wide variety of uses, including helping customers by automating conversations.

The future is here. Did LaMDA somehow become sentient? Who knows. But it’s certain that if you haven’t already unknowingly interacted with a chatbot online when you contact customer support, you soon will. And don’t be surprised when a robot arrives with your order at a restaurant.

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