Her name is Jie Jie, she is two years old and works in a suburb of the city of Guangzhou in southern China. She’s mostly dressed in white, has a cute neckerchief, and huge eyes that blink every four seconds exactly, and is the worst waitress I’ve ever met. She’s a robot.
“We see her almost like a sister,” said Jie Jie’s colleague, a human waitress named Dong Jing, at the Steamed King Robot Restaurant.
During the last few years, robot restaurants opened up all over China. The non-human staff welcome guests, take orders, cook and do dishes. There’s just one drawback: They have all proven incompetent and often annoying.
In some cases, the robot chefs messed up the food and the waitress versions couldn’t understand food orders. They have been known to collide with each other and spill noodle soup over guests. Many restaurant owners lost patience and pulled the plug on the robot staff. Chinese media have described the situation as chaotic.
Steamed King Robot Restaurant is one of the few in Guangzhou – perhaps the only one – that still has a jiqiren, “machine man.” The robot waitress wasn’t to be seen when entering the restaurant, until a pair of large red eyes blinked from a shadowy corner. There she obediently stood.
And suddenly, Jie Jie comes to life. She starts moving along a magnetic tape on the floor. From a loudspeaker in her stomach bawls ‘I wish you a Merry Christmas’
Tea and dim sum was ordered from a definitely human waitress and it was confirmed the chef was also homo sapiens. When the food was ready, the humanoid waitress placed it on a tray that Jie Jie was holding, punched the table number into her console.
And suddenly, Jie Jie comes to life.
She starts moving along a magnetic tape on the floor. From a loudspeaker in her stomach bawls “I wish you a Merry Christmas” at full blast. Other people look up as she slowly slides past their tables. Stress on slowly.
Suddenly she stops. A chair blocks her way.
“Dear sir, pretty lady, please step out of my way. I deliver food,” she urges the chair.
A waitress rushes up and removes the stool, and Jie Jie continues on her way between the tables. It’s several minutes before she finally arrives.
She loudly announces: “Dear table 205. Your food has now arrived.”
Then nothing happens. She stands there. Silent. Eyes blinking. Waiting. This seems to be the extent of her waitress job description. Guests have to pick up the (very hot) dishes from the tray themselves. Jie Jie is unmoved, still silent and blinking. A human waitress intervenes, punches some buttons, the Christmas song blasts off again, and Jie Jie slides away down the aisle.
She takes a wrong turn and gets stuck in a dead end between two tables. Again, the waitress comes to the rescue and turn her in the right direction. By this stage the restaurant mood has turned sympathetic — Jie Jie seems senile.
“We actually have more robots,” Dong Jing says cheerfully. “Soon there will be a dance show.”
She runs off and returns with a small, man robot that she puts on the table. She presses a remote control and the little man kicks of dancing to South Korean pop hit Gangnam Style. The other carbon-based lifeform waitresses join around the table and clap hands to the beat.
The restaurant mood has now switched from sympathy for the senile to plain annoyance. I tell the waitresses how impressive the dancing K-pop performance is with the hope they’ll now switch it off. They all beam smiles and leave. On the table, between teacups and dim sum dumplings, the little robot man continues with his disco.
In China, it’s not just restaurants that have replaced humans with robots. In a temple in the city of Longquan outside Beijing, a robot monk called Xian’er greets visitors.
Sitting cross-legged, he sings Buddhist mantras and answers questions about life and faith. Although the robotic monk has received considerable praise on social media, he reportedly spends most of his time “meditating” on a shelf.
I can’t help thinking that perhaps Jie Jie and the dancing robots at Steamed King Robot Restaurant should also be encouraged to spend more time in silent contemplation.