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Meet Penny, the robotic waitress hoping to transform the restaurant industry

A Silicon Valley startup is developing a line of cute robots able to competently serve tables at restaurants.

Dubbed ‘Penny’, the robot aims to ease the workload of human servers, cut waiting times for customers and decrease costs for business owners.

The project is part of a restaurant automatisation solution currently being developed by Bear Robotics.

Not that far away from the wisecracking Rosie from the classic TV show The Jetsons, Penny is capable of swerving between people, will stop when faced with hazards and, according to the creators, can even handle hot soup.

It still doesn’t deliver snarky remarks, but it’ll get there.

Bear Robotics is the brainchild of John Ha, a former engineer at Google. While he was working for the tech giant, John Ha was a regular customer at the Kang Nam Tofu House, a Korean restaurant in a strip mall in Milpitas, California.

When the owners decided to sell, Ha jumped on to the opportunity to become a restaurateur.

While he filled in for dishwashers and servers whenever someone called in sick or quit, he realised technology could make restaurant management easier.

“I realised, why have all the manual labor?” he said in an interview with FastCompany.

“No one’s really happy. No one’s proud of a restaurant job… I thought robots could bring a huge impact to society.

“So I decided to quit Google, started building the prototype, and now it’s running as a daily operation at my restaurant.

The small robot maps its surrounding environment and uses sensors to navigate the narrow and crowded spaces between the kitchen and the tables. If Penny senses anything interfering with its path within a range of a foot, it will automatically stop.

Penny doesn’t take cigarette breaks, doesn’t leave early for auditions and gets summoned in seconds by the touch of a button.

But far from putting human workers into obsolescence, Penny, at least for now, is designed to work in tandem with her human counterparts and improve their work experience.

In fact, in Ha’s experience, as waiters no longer have to be running back and forth between the kitchen and the tables, they can focus more on customer service, which in turn increases their tips.

The startup is beginning to test Penny in other Bay Area restaurants, trying out “her” behaviour in different environments and handling different types of food.

Penny is at @amiciseastcoastpizzeria 🍕 Come to be served by her every Tuesday night #bearrobotics #pennytherobot #amicis #futurerestaurant #robotics #ai

A post shared by Bear Robotics (@bearrobotics) on

Penny’s reception has been so good that Ha is planning on selling the Kang Nam Tofu House to solely focus on Bear Robotics.

“I hope our solutions improve the working environment for the restaurant and restaurant employees can live more like middle-class citizens,” he said.

“That’s really what I want to achieve: change the way that a restaurant is operated.”

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