Robots – lounging about?

A while back, I wrote about the coffee-making iPad in the 1903 Lounge at Manchester Airport Terminal 3 (iCoffee and Social Robots). I now update on that theme after encountering a couple of hardworking robots in the Aspire Lounge in Terminal 1 at Manchester Airport.

Or, perhaps what was most fascinating was to observe, over a rather good early morning breakfast of scrambled eggs, granola and coffee, how others interacted with these robots.

There were two robots at work in the lounge. Their role was to serve as mobile collectors for used dishes, relocating every few minutes to different positions, then from time to time moving back to the kitchen to be emptied, then returning back to lounge position. Each robot had several labeled plastic trays, into which could be placed used plates, cups, cutlery, and other items.

An airport lounge is place where people come and go. When new lounge visitors came across these robots trundling quietly among the tables and chairs, polite curiosity was sparked. Younger children were especially amused, but more enthusiastically, at times stepping in front of a moving robot to see what would happen. The result: the robot stopped while flashing its blue-led eyes with a parent giving instructions to leave the robot alone and not to chase it!

During their visit, and when leaving, most visitors gave the robots no more attention. The new entrants to the workplace had become accepted.

Yet, it was noticeable that as each robot came around and waited silently in its position, many lounge visitors would gather up their used plates and cups and place them in the robot’s plastic trays. Not everyone did this, but it seemed that more people than usual were helping the robot out rather than leaving their used things on the table when departing.

Alongside the robots was a very effective human worker who was also clearing tables, this time scrapping off waste food into a green bin, sorting paper waste for recycling, and organizing used items on their trolleys. And, after being cleared, each table was wiped down and refreshed for new users.

This kind of work, which seems routine but has many varied actions, was not replaced by the dish collecting robots. And, although I couldn’t directly directly see it, I assume that there is someone in the kitchen who unloads the robot trays, sorts out the waste, and organizes the used plates and cups for the dishwasher. So, there is still non-robotic routine work, but it is moved to the kitchen rather than being entirely performed in the lounge.

Elsewhere, I see stories about robots serving food in restaurants, in part to address current labor shortages. Still, its interesting to reflect that in 1983, a California restaurant emerged as the world’s first restaurant with robot waiting staff (according to the Guinness Book of Records). So the idea of robot staff in restaurants has been around quite a while. And, those early robots had many technical issues and, in the end, took more time and effort to maintain than they were worth.

Today, robot waiting staff is still a novelty, as it was for me and for other users of the lounge at Manchester airport. They can do simple fetch and carry. Customers seem to accept them, indeed they cheerily help the robot to do its job. Yet, while robots can complement today’s human hospitality workers, it still seems a long way off before they can or will be able to replace them!