Robot cafe in South Korea

Robot barista deployed to aid social distancing in cafe

Image credit: REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji

A café in Daejeon, South Korea, has introduced a robot to serve customers, which it hopes will minimise the risk of human-to-human Covid-19 transmission.

According to a Reuters report, the robot barista combines a coffee-making robotic arm and a serving robot to make 60 different types of coffee and deliver them to customers’ seats, using self-driving technology to decide upon the best routes around the café. It can also communicate and transmit data to other devices.

The robot is almost the height of a human, with a screen where the face would be and spaces in its body to secure cups of coffee while bringing them to customers. It speaks to customers as it delivers their orders.

An order of six drinks delivered through a kiosk took just seven minutes to fulfil, the report said.

The assistance of the robot barista means that the café can operate with just one member of staff at any one time: a pastry chef who also helps with cleaning and refilling ingredients.

Robots assistants like this could help people observe social distancing in public places, said Lee Dong-bae, director of research at Vision Semicon, which developed the robot barista.

“Our system needs no input from people from order to delivery, and tables are sparsely arranged to ensure smooth movements of the robots, which fits well with the current distancing campaign,” he explained.

Vision Semicon aims to supply at least 30 cafes with robots this year. It is also working with a government-run science institute on adding some machine-learning capabilities to enable the robot to create custom drinks.

While robot assistants may be welcomed for their role in helping cafes and other businesses to reopen with reduced human contact, there are sure to be concerns that this comes at the expense of jobs for humans. This could have a disproportionate effect on young people who have lost work in hospitality and retail amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Student Lee Chae-mi told Reuters that while the robots make the order fun and easy: “I’m also a bit worried about the job market as many of my friends are doing part-time jobs at cafes and these robots would replace humans.”

South Korea announced its first confirmed case of Covid-19 in mid-January, and quickly responded with a ban on mass gatherings, some restrictions on travel, and a highly-successful test-trace-isolate programme. The national fatality rate has been significantly lower than the WHO’s global case fatality rate, with fewer than 300 deaths recorded overall. The country is now making a transition towards “distancing in daily life”.

Robots were appearing in cafes and restaurants long before the coronavirus pandemic arrived. In December 2019, SoftBank Robotics launched a café in Tokyo called Pepper Parlor which featured dancing robots as entertainment, and in December 2017 a restaurant in Chennai rebranded as “Robot Theme Restaurant” with the introduction of a robot waiting service.

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