For quite some time now we’ve been discussing the possibility that a steadily and rapidly increasing minimum wage could drive many employers, particularly in the food and beverage industry, to look at automation and robotics to replace human servers and other staff. At a meeting of the National Restaurant Association in Chicago this week that subject was prominently featured, but it’s no longer being spoken of in strictly hypothetical terms. One company already has robot servers on the job, working in conjunction with kiosks or tablets where customers can place their orders themselves. The future of server jobs is here and her name is “Penny.” (CBS Chicago)

CBS 2’s Vince Gerasole reports restaurant servers of the future may soon look like R2D2.

The restaurant world prides itself on the personal touch, but Penny, the robotic server, could be moving in.

“They are meant to help servers do a lot of the routine monotonous tasks they have to do,” explains Juan Higueros of Bear Robotics.

The robotic servers can carry orders to tables or bring used plates back and forth to the kitchen. The restaurant’s floor plan is pre-programmed into their operating systems.

Penny is named after the character on the television show The Big Bang Theory who worked as a waitress at the Cheesecake Factory. Watch her in action in this short video from the manufacturer, Bear Robotics.

The background on Bear Robotics is pretty interesting. It was founded by John Ha, who used to be an engineer at Google. He bought a Korean restaurant and quickly realized that he could be more efficient and profitable if he could automate a lot of the restaurant jobs. He created the robotic servers and formed Bear Robotics to provide them to the entire industry.

The problem for workers in the restaurant industry is that once the robotic genie is out of the bottle, it’s probably not going back in. Even if wage growth backed off and labor costs weren’t rising so steeply, the companies investing in this sort of technology have almost no incentive to turn back now. The only thing hindering the advancement of this technology in the past was the fact that human servers were cheap enough and the cost of automation was high. But once Penny is on the job, aside from a little downtime for maintenance and repairs, she’s ready to work every shift from here forward, never needing a break or a sick day. She doesn’t ask for a raise or go on strike for better conditions. And if the customers find the system appealing (or at least acceptable) then hiring more servers is pretty much a thing of the past.

I would miss the personal touch if this system came to our local, high-end eateries, but I’d probably get used to it eventually.