EletiofePeanut the Waiter Robot Is Proof That Your Job...

Peanut the Waiter Robot Is Proof That Your Job Is Safe


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During a normal April, the owners of the Island Grill would already have a stack of applications to wade through in preparation for the busy Jersey Shore summer. But as the pandemic has waned and business has returned, the applicants haven’t lined up. Here in Ocean City, there just aren’t enough hands to serve coconut shrimp, quesadillas, and clam chowder in a family-friendly setting.

So Allison Yoa, one of the grill’s owners, hired Peanut the robot, an autonomous machine that shuttles back and forth from the kitchen delivering food and bussing dirty dishes. It looks like a rolling bookshelf, with four trays, a touchscreen, and an upward-facing infrared camera that scans markings on the ceiling in order to navigate. Peanut uses lidar to detect and evade obstacles in its way. “If the object is immovable and she can’t go around, she will say, ‘Excuse me,’ and she does get a little testy,” Yoa says with a laugh. “Children love it. Most people that come in think it’s really cool.”

Peanut has unwittingly rolled into an unprecedented labor market. There have been plenty of anecdotal accounts of restaurant and bar owners, in particular, not being able to hire. (One McDonald’s offered iPhones to new employees who stayed for six months.) People may not be comfortable working in public spaces yet, or aren’t fully vaccinated, or are still trying to sort out childcare. “It’s not a job replacement,” Yoa stresses about turning to robotic help. “We people that own small businesses, we’re in trouble right now.”

As the Covid-19 lockdown solidified its grip on the world’s economies in March 2020, whole industries ground to a halt. Masses of people were suddenly jobless as businesses closed facilities, reduced staffs, or staggered shifts to prevent the spread of the virus. If robots steal so many jobs, I asked at the time, why weren’t they coming to the economic rescue, picking up the slack by supplying a workforce that couldn’t get sick?

The reality is that—no offense to Peanut—in the vast majority of cases, robots are still too dumb and clumsy to replace humans outright. “Robots are more like tools, a way to augment the efficiency of a person,” says Phil Zheng, chief operating officer at Richtech Robotics, which makes Peanut. (The robot’s officially called Matradee, a play on maître d’.) “So you increase the human’s ability to produce and do things, that’s really what it is. It’s more of a partner, a tool, like a laptop is a tool.”

Peanut is part of a vanguard of machines that are just beginning to work more closely with humans, assuming parts of jobs. Peanut mostly shleps dishes; the Island Grill’s servers still have to do everything else themselves. “They know their job is not in jeopardy,” Yoa says of her staff, “because the robot can’t take your order at the table, she can’t talk to you. She’s only an extra device.”

True, Peanut never takes breaks. But it also doesn’t have arms. Humans have to babysit Peanut too. The cooks have to load the robot up and send it to a preset area of the dining room to deliver the food. Once the waiter removes the plates from the robot, they tap a button to send the machine back to the kitchen. Yoa says they’re considering using Peanut to sing “Happy Birthday” to customers. “But at that point, still, you need somebody to push that button and tell her what to do,” she points out.

Robots also lack the kind of intelligence, manual dexterity, and people skills that any good cook, host, or server relies on to keep their diners happy. Can Peanut talk down a customer who’s irate because their eggs were fried instead of scrambled? Can it deftly plate a tuna tartare and avocado tower, and do a nice little sauce flourish around the edges? Can a robot hold back a chef who’s about to rampage because someone called their creations low-grade dog food? No way.

Even employing a simple robot like Peanut requires a sort of negotiation between machine and human coworkers. Basically: Stay in your lane, robot. “They don’t come in and blend well with us,” says Julie Carpenter, a research fellow in the Ethics and Emerging Sciences Group at California Polytechnic State University. “We’re negotiating how to work around them—they’re not smart enough to work around us. They’re not cooperative. They’re not collaborative. They just follow orders.”

Because of this interpersonal awkwardness, you can make a strong case that there are some jobs that we just don’t want robots to take on. Part of a nurse’s job, for instance, is comforting patients and working seamlessly with other medical personnel, while a robot is devoid of such empathy and collaborative skill. A cop navigates an extremely sensitive emotional landscape—robots can’t even do simple security patrols without getting into trouble. In April, the New York Police Department canceled a program with Boston Dynamics’ robot dog Spot, following public concerns about the militarization of the police. Also known as the “Digidog,” it was intended for use in hostage and reconnaissance situations.

Plus, the restaurants and bars that we humans so enjoy are in fact absolute nightmares for mobile machines like Peanut. Roboticists call this kind of space an “unstructured” environment, in which a robot has to navigate all sorts of chaos, like chairs, spills, and wandering toddlers. This is in contrast to a “structured” environment like a factory, in which a fixed robotic arm does repetitive work. Robots are great at that—doing the heavy lifting, riveting, or welding over and over and over in a space with no surprises.

Image may contain: Construction Crane

Yet even on an automotive assembly line—the very best environment for a robot to work in—machines complement human labor. Robots do the grunt work, and humans do the fine manipulation, like detail work in a car’s interior. If robots could do everything in a factory, humans could shut off the lights, go home, and let the machines churn out vehicles in the dark.

“Trying to automate a process from soup to nuts, it’s just a lot harder than dividing the labor and finding places where the humans can play to their strengths, and the machines play to their strengths,” says Erik Brynjolfsson, director of the Digital Economy Lab at Stanford University. (For robots, that’s literal strength, plus their ability to handle repetitive tasks with extreme consistency. Humans are better at virtually everything else.) “If you have that kind of division of labor,” Brynjolfsson continues, “you’re probably going to have a more nimble assembly line, more overall productivity, and more ability to be flexible.”

So in an economic moment like this one, when businesses are suddenly ramping up their hiring, they can’t just mechanize what turn out to be extremely complex jobs. Peanut is a rarity, and it can still only move food and dirty dishes from point A to point B.

In fact, the primitiveness of robots makes a strong case for the value of human labor. Right now businesses are clamoring for that labor—and there isn’t enough, which should be good for workers. “It means workers could be choosier, looking presumably for higher pay, but also for better working conditions,” says Dean Baker, a senior economist at the Center for Economic and Policy Research, a nonprofit think tank. “So if there’s a place where the manager is known to be a real jerk or something, they’re not going to feel they have to take that, because they could get by on unemployment benefits for a period of time, and then get a job that looks better to them.”

Republican-led states have been trying to gut those bolstered unemployment benefits—an additional $600 a week from the Feds at the start of the pandemic, and now $300 until September—arguing that the money has disincentivized people from finding work. But studies from Yale and the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco don’t agree with that. “It turns out there’s not a strong relationship between generous benefits and higher unemployment,” says Baker. “Which doesn’t mean zero, it’s just that it’s not a strong relationship. And that seems to be what the research found looking at the $600 weekly benefits.”

As for Peanut’s employment status, Yoa can’t yet say for sure if the robot will be a temporary or long-term employee. As the Island Grill increases to full capacity, the robot may not have enough room to operate efficiently. “As of right now, personally, I think she’d be temporary,” Yoa says. “Because—I mean, God willing—I hope we get back to normal next year.”

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