Stories

Robotic waiters: Alibaba launches automated restaurant in Shanghai

Serving food at Hema. GIF via Alibaba video

Select some live seafood in one of Alibaba's Hema grocery stores in Shanghai, get it rung up and bagged, and a robotic arm will whisk it away to a kitchen. Minutes later, a pod will wheel out of the kitchen, pulling up to your table with your meal under a transparent dome.

What's going on: A raised highway of robot pods has replaced human waitstaff in an already high-tech Hema — with humans mostly left to the greeting and cooking.

The big picture: Robot food runners may seem like a gimmick to get diners through the door. But if they become commonplace, it will be because high labor costs make them more cost-efficient than living, breathing waiters.

The context: In some cities around the world, waitstaff are expensive enough that they've been done away with, turning even nicer restaurants into Chipotle-style cafeterias where diners order at a counter, grab utensils, and bus their own table.

Some are going entirely robotic:

  • JD.com, Alibaba's main e-c0mmerce competitor, says that next month, it will open a fully automated restaurant, staffed with no human cooks or servers, reports Daisuke Harashima of Nikkei Asian Review. By 2020, it will operate about 1,000 of them, JD says.
  • The company — fiercely competing with Alibaba — has already taken the lead in commercial robotization with a wholly automated warehouse staffed with just four humans, all of whom service the robots.

But, but, but: In most cases, humans are still part of the equation. The automated Hema experience, for instance, still includes frail mortals welcoming customers, explaining the ordering system, taking payment, and — crucially — cooking the food.