Chip Labour: The Issue With Odisha’s Latest Robot Waiters

I was at a biennial conclave in Bengaluru on October 18 when the news broke: At Bhubaneswar’s infocity, there is now a restaurant where two robots are part of the wait staff.

The restaurant claims that this is the first such attempt in Eastern India, and the third across the nation, after Bengaluru and Chennai. 

I found this bit of news disturbing for a few reasons. For one, the threat of automation makes me anxious. Two, I was left astonished by the fact that it was the state tourism department that had decided to make such a hullabaloo about it.

I put it up the story up on my Instagram, and condemned the tourist department’s rhetoric of “development” because virtue signalling on Instagram is now a way of life.

However, my friends from Bhubaneswar did not seem to understand what the problem was. “Menial jobs will go, obviously,” one said. “Dude, why are you against progress,” said another.

But what exactly is so obvious and progressive about robot waiters continues to elude me.

Any argument against AI must contend with the usual remark that people have similarly been paranoid about all new technologies since the beginning of civilisation, since at each point of technological  innovation, jobs have been lost.

Such an argument does not apply to the current situation.

All previous technologies have replaced routine physical labour. It is for the first time that technology promises to replace cognitive labour. Cognition also happens to be the only thing that makes humans, human.

How is it not worrying that a waiter’s job is a price we are willing to pay for supposed technological progress?

Can robots replace humans?

Many might argue that the job is repetitive and therefore can be performed better by robots. But we can make similar claims about many other jobs – as most have some element of repetition inherent in them.

Some might also argue that one doesn’t need cognitive skills to be a waiter. Well, they must visit restaurants with rude waiters and notice various verbal and non-verbal tactics at play. These things, as many would agree, make a restaurant favourable for its service as well and not just its food.

It is on waiters to decide to charm the customer and sell items that the owners want sold. It is on them to respond actively to customer’s demands and, in some cases, even play the role of a cheap therapist in some bar/pub scenarios.

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Also, if one truly believes that robots are more effective than humans and reduce human errors, why can’t robots replace doctors, programme developers and others involved in high-risk jobs?

They won’t, even when the technology becomes sufficiently robust to replace humans. But the waiters will have to give away their jobs because, as many say, it is not considered a “respectable” profession.

Maybe, just maybe, a robot would be able to carry out a successful operation. But I hardly think we as a race would be ready to go to a hospital without human doctors manning it. After all, doctors are human institutions that the technology can, at most, “assist” but can never replace.

Lastly, the argument that robot waiters can cut costs for restaurant is also foolhardy. In addition to the inherent cost that goes into manufacturing robots, the management will have to hire technicians for maintenance. Plus, we know who among a technician and a waiter demands and draws a larger salary.

Hence, one can only conclude that such a move can only be purely for symbolic purpose. It is to look exotic at the expense of the restaurant’s budget while cutting jobs that could have gone to two humans who probably have a greater need for it.

Cognitive inequality

But beyond these abstract matters, there is also the problem of class and cognitive inequality.

For my friends, both from the upper class and the middle, in a state notorious for its poverty (Odisha), jobs like that of a waiter only exist as a necessary byproduct of their urban need for fancy food and social obligations.

What they, and most of us, in our urban upper class existence forget about, is the people manning those jobs. What is it about the poor that makes it so easy for us progress at their expense? How does one justify the existence of robot waiters to those that rely on these “menial” jobs for their survival?

Many dismiss this merely by saying that with new technology, new job profiles are born, and therefore there is no net loss of livelihood. But is one really naive enough to think that a middle-aged waiter will transition into a technology-related job because there are new jobs available in such a sector?

Also read: Inside the Bleak World of Delhi’s Contractual Labourers

Such arguments turn a blind eye to class and its intersection with caste and gender. In India, access to high skill jobs is increasingly becoming a forte of the upper middle class.

The access to emerging jobs related to technology requires one to first obtain a technical education which is not easy because of the competition, which, by no means, is even. Moreover, coaching centres charge exorbitant fee which many can’t afford.

In a largely rural state like Odisha, this has disastrous consequences.

All new jobs are created at the expense of those who cannot seek them because of the inherent inequalities of our nation. The close relation between class and cognition is underlined in psychology by the Flynn Effect, according to which, one’s IQ level increases with better nourishment and socioeconomic status. Additionally, there are also social, economic and political factors that allow only a few to tap into the growing high skill market.

Whose ‘net good’?

Another argument justifying such automation is that while things seem difficult for those that will lose their jobs at this juncture there would be ‘net good’ for society on a larger scale a generation or so later.

Progress in a deeply feudal nation can never be for all. It is always at the expense of those that we consider expendable. I can understand if these arguments are made by my friends who have colossal dreams of studying abroad and leaving this “poor” nation.

But I can’t understand why the Odisha government decided to celebrate the robot waiters – Naveen Patnaik, the current chief minister of Odisha, has been touted as the messiah of the poor.

To top it, the robots were made by a Jaipur-based startup, thereby erasing the question of ‘Odia pride’. The only contribution of the ‘Odia restaurant’ is that it decided to buy the robots to replace waiters. Essentially, it’s a decision which illustrates neither the technological progress of the state, nor the CM’s love for the poor.

The government has tried very hard, through its renewed tourism campaign, to portray Odisha as a dream vacation destination (which in many ways, it is). But how a robot restaurant is meant to help paint that picture is beyond my understanding.

It might attract curious tourists, but how long will such curiosities be evoked – it’s unlikely, unless the food is absolutely fantastic, that the novelty of the restaurant would make for regulars instead of gawking first-time visitors.

For the restaurant itself, such a move seems both an ingenious plan-B and an example of how the crooked consumer capitalism in its worst form functions, wherein the product, which is food, is replaced by ancillary ornamentation (in this case the robots) as the unique selling point.

It is truly worrisome to see the hospitality industry so ready to replace its most essential component: humans. It is perhaps telling that we regard such a development with applause and curiosity.

Atish Padhy studies Journalism, Psychology and English at Christ university, Bangalore. When not reading or worrying about whether a masters degree in Philosophy would be feasible, he can be found complaining about Arsenal’s backline. 

Featured image credit: YouTube screengrab