Confucius Say: Robot Waiters Reap Fortune, Cookie (but What's That Transistor Doing in My Soup?)

updated 06/13/1983 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 06/13/1983 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Great ideas, like bacteria, bloom best in the perfect environment. Thus, in retrospect, it seems only natural that two major cultural achievements of the late 20th century—American fast food and Japanese high tech—should come together at the Two Panda Deli, a Chinese fast-food restaurant owned by a Japanese-American couple, Shayne and Terry Hiyashi, in Pasadena, Calif. The Hiyashis have more than doubled their business in recent months by employing as waiters two $20,000 Japanese robots—Tenbo R-1 and his girlfriend, Tenbo R-2—who deliver food, blare music, balk at incomprehensible commands ("Do not understand 'Get down and boogie,' " beeps R-1), and sometimes put customers in a quandary. "I wonder," said one diner, "if a lube job is the right kind of tip?"

Actually, a power boost would probably be more helpful. The pair tend to slur their words drunkenly when their 12-volt power cells run down; they have also been known to spin in circles and drop food when police radios operate nearby (a frequency adjustment recently solved that problem). They are programmed to act on specific voice instructions from Shayne or Terry ("Please pick up plates from table 12," "Please start singing") and to speak politely to customers ("Will there be anything else?" "See you tomorrow") in English, Japanese or Spanish. They can also respond to some specific requests from customers ("Please bring water"). Patrons whose commands confuse the robots get the response "That's not my problem," followed by a short blast of disco music to which the bubbleheaded waiters dance back and forth. While shuttling spareribs or chow mein between the counter and the Two Panda's 16 tables, the pair often play the theme from The Pink Panther.

The Hiyashis, who note that similar robots have been in use in Japan for a decade, are so high on their stainless-steel help that they plan to begin importing them for sale to other restaurants. "They never break down," says Terry, 28. "When they make a mistake or cannot accomplish a task, it's never the robot's fault. Human error messes them up. People expect the impossible. Some of our customers expect a robot to serve them the world on a silver platter." Most customers, however, settle for egg foo yung and a fortune cookie.

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