Will robots run the restaurant of the future?

RoboHow has trained robots to make pancakes and pizza. Now they've trained a robotic maitre d'hotel to take an order and relay it to the robotic chefs.

Michelle Starr Science editor
Michelle Starr is CNET's science editor, and she hopes to get you as enthralled with the wonders of the universe as she is. When she's not daydreaming about flying through space, she's daydreaming about bats.
Michelle Starr
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Romeo politely rejects Alexander's first choice. Video screenshot by Michelle Starr/CNET

There are probably a lot of benefits to robot-run restaurants. A robot could potentially learn hundreds of thousands of recipes. Robotic limbs can be built to withstand kitchen temperatures, avoiding burns. A robot wouldn't forget an order, or spit in the soup. And robo-chef PR2 flipping pancakes is a joy to behold.

This last has actually been accomplished by the team at the University of Bremen's RoboHow project. The team has been using the website WikiHow as a robotic learning tool. It turns out that WikiHow's step-by-step instructions are perfect for breaking down an activity into its component tasks, and teaching robots to understand verbal, rather than programmed, commands.

To date, they have trained the Willow Garage PR2 robot to make pancakes and pizza using WikiHow. They have also taught a robot named Rosie to make sandwiches and popcorn. This is part of a broader mission to advance machine learning, as well as teach robots how to perform human-scale manipulation activities that can be spoken by an operator, an interface anyone can use.

The latest step in this research involves the humanoid robot Romeo from Aldebaran robotics. Romeo has been trained to act as a waiter, greeting and taking a food order from a human "customer" in a restaurant simulation.

In the video below, the human, Alexander, approaches Romeo. Romeo asks Alexander what he would like to eat. Alexander replies with an item that isn't on the menu. Romeo apologises and offers a menu item (pizza), to which Alexander amends his order. Romeo then relays the revised order to the waiting PR2 wielding a spatula and Rosie holding a spoon behind him.

We don't get to see PR2 understanding the order or making the pizza. That's the next phase of the project. But what we see here is remarkable. Romeo is able to recognise when a human has approached, and greet him. He is also able to understand Alexander's instructions, and react accordingly.

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What this means for the next step is that robots will be able to understand verbal commands delivered by other robots. Once the human has provided the first level of instructions, the robots will be able to autonomously collaborate to complete the activity. As far as household robots go, this could greatly assist people with mobility impairments with everyday tasks.

It also has implications outside of the home. Such cooperative service robots could, in the future, be employed in cleaning and maintenance work, deliveries, repetitive scientific tasks and even surgery. And, of course, they could be employed in face-to-face service positions, such as museums, stores, and, yes, bars and restaurants.

In the meantime, human chefs definitely still have the advantage over their mechanical counterparts.

You can watch Romeo at work in the video below and, in the video below that, you can watch PR2 flipping pancakes.