Robot server at Fai Thai restaurant in Knoxville is a novelty for now – Knoxville News Sentinel

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Beeps and whirs come from the kitchen of Fai Thai as an automated entity begins to emerge from the double doors. It’s Rosie − just like from “The Jetsons” − balancing your dinner on its robotic “head.”

It’s cute, and it’s convenient. But will Rosie and other robots eventually replace Knoxville jobs?

It’s a question with a lot of implications. But for now, the small staff at the family-owned Fai Thai Kitchen in Bearden Village is simply enjoying the extra help as customers take in the novelty of Knoxville’s first full-time robotic server, at least that we’ve seen.

Technology has entered restaurants in other ways, from touch-screen ordering to food delivery robots on the University of Tennessee at Knoxville campus. But this takes restaurants to the next level − perhaps, to the future.

Why robot rentals might make sense for restaurants like Fai Thai

Rosie is shaped like a cylinder with two trays to carry food, a compartment to carry dirty dishes and a tablet on the front with an animated face. The robot follows a map of the restaurant to deliver food to tables or carryout orders to the counter, but it can get confused if furniture or a customer is blocking the predetermined path.

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Fai Thai owner Kultida “Fai” Blais controls Rosie’s destination − a specific table number, for example − using her own tablet. She and Nathan Blais, her husband and business partner, began renting the robot after seeing a demonstration at the Restaurant and Bar Expo in Las Vegas.

Fai Thai, located at 4451 Kingston Pike, started renting roughly two months back but had to return the original robot once it stopped working. Rosie costs $600 per month to rent, or just $20 per day, and was created by United Robotics Group.

The company supplies robot workers to restaurants, health care facilities and other businesses.

“We love it. We just try new things,” Kultida Blais said. “If it didn’t work out, we might send it back. But if it works out, we might keep it month to month.”

One benefit is there are no retention concerns with robots as restaurants are still trying to build up staff after the COVID-19 pandemic. Restaurants that continue to completely rely on humans will be chasing employees forever, Kultida Blais said.

Kultida Blais, owner of Fai Thai Kitchen, directs her robot server using a tablet May 23. While the robot understands the layout of the restaurant, a misplaced piece of furniture or a lingering customer can be confusing while trying to navigate a predetermined path.

“Small restaurants like us, family-run, I think it’s helped a lot,” she said about Rosie.

Other Tennessee cities have tried robot servers. What’s next?

Starship Technologies introduced delivery robots to UT in 2022, though the city of Knoxville has since banned them off campus. The university continues to shape how robots will be used in the future, including through the research of Xiaopeng Zhao, a professor and program director of AI and data science for the College of Emerging and Collaborative Studies.

Zhao came to UT in 2007 and started getting into robotics in 2014.

“The concept dated back about four or five decades ago,” Zhao said of robot servers. “But back then, robots are very, very limited. … Ten years ago, we started to see robots which are used in restaurants, in airports, in hotels, libraries and in malls. In recent years, we see more and more.”

Xiaopeng Zhao stands with the robots in his lab at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. Zhao uses them for health care applications, like coaching novice caregivers, answering health-related questions and conducting music therapy for patients with Alzheimer's.

In 10 years, people should expect to see more robots “everywhere,” Zhao said. That includes more of a presence in the restaurant industry and for more “strenuous” jobs.

Nashville and Memphis have already welcomed their first robotic servers. And in Pasadena, California, CaliExpress is fully automated with robots taking orders, cooking food and serving customers.

“That is not happening very often now, but that may become a real problem in who knows how long,” Zhao told Knox News. “It could be a few years or a few months. But I think it’s a tangible problem. It’s a real problem. As researchers … (we) definitely take that into consideration and are so concerned about that.”

‘The kids … love it’: How to see Fai Thai’s robot server yourself

The surge in ChatGPT’s popularity has boosted development in artificial intelligence and robotics, Zhao said. Publicly available AI tools are increasing the average person’s understanding of how new technology can make some tasks easier.

That needs to continue if robots are going to become more integrated in modern society, Zhao said, and the experiment at Fai Thai is one opportunity for people to get more familiar with artificial intelligence.

Rosie, an example of United Robotics Group's Plato model, serves a noodle dish to a customer at Fai Thai Kitchen in Knoxville. The restaurant's owners rent the robot for $600 per month.

“(The customers) love it. The kids, especially the kids, they love it. It’s like a novelty more than like … actually good labor,” Kultida Blais said. “It’s good labor, but it makes the space more like interesting.”

Fai Thai’s hours are 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Tuesday through Friday, with a 3-5 p.m. break between lunch and dinner. Saturday and Sunday hours are noon-8 p.m.

Rosie works any time the restaurant is open.

Keenan Thomas is a higher education reporter. Email [email protected]. X, formerly known as Twitter @specialk2real.

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