[INTERVIEW] Robots offer humans more time for interaction

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[INTERVIEW] Robots offer humans more time for interaction

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Left: Bear Robotics founder and CEO John Ha. Right: Bear Robotics’ serving robot Penny. [SONG KYOUNG-SON, BEAR ROBOTICS]

LAS VEGAS - John Ha was a software engineer working in Google’s Silicon Valley headquarters when he took over a restaurant in the neighborhood. His original plan was to enjoy the life of a diner owner, casually greeting guests and occasionally inviting friends over during the weekend. But that was before reality hit him hard.

“I had to cook all weekend, serve during the weekdays after work - I walked five to eight kilometers [3 to 5 miles] a day,” Ha said in an interview with The Korea JoongAng Daily on Jan. 8, during the CES 2020 trade show.

“I wanted to step aside from the actual work once we had enough staff, but that never happened. As soon as I hired somebody new, someone quit; Hiring in groups didn’t work either because it pushed the business into the red.”

Ha found a solution in self-driving serving robots which ran in his restaurant. A year later in 2017, he started Bear Robotics along with three co-founders. In the following two years, Bear supplied more than 4,000 robots across the world. Last week, this two-year-old start-up announced it had received Series-A funding worth $32 million from a consortium led by Japan’s SoftBank Group.

In appearance, Penny looks like a stool with trays and a bucket attached. The robot works on laser sensors and 3-D cameras to self-navigate its way through tables and customers on the most efficient route. Once fully charged, Penny can serve - or rather, move between the kitchen and tables - up to 200 times.

Penny is nothing like a humanoid. It doesn’t have arms nor can it greet customers. Its only role is to deliver dishes from one point to another. Nonetheless the mere idea of a robot server can be threatening for its potential of taking away human jobs.

But Bear Robotics CEO Ha believes the serving robot will never fully replace what humans do. Rather, it can help humans focus on what they can do best while leaving the repetitive and physically challenging work to the machines.

“Human touch is an incredibly important part. In old diners you have owners that greet you like your mother would at home while on dates you go to family restaurants with young vibrant servers asking how your day was. You need good people skills and fast intuition to be really good at this,” he said.

“Serving is about hospitality, not just delivering plates, but that’s where the physical challenge comes from. I thought this was something that robots could take care of.”

According to Bear’s survey on its clients, Penny increased the time servers spend talking to customers by 40 percent. On the customer’s end, service satisfaction rose 95 percent which in turn realized higher tips for the restaurant’s human staff. Ha has seen negative reactions come from human servers before Penny started operations but also experienced receiving grateful comments once the two started working together.

“Some of them are people working in the lowest income chain. Penny’s like their sidekick that makes them feel like the boss,” he said.

“A big burden for these people is that there’s always a shortage of workforce - with the minimum wage continuing to go up. Increasing staff is not their best scenario either, because that would pull down their individual tips. So they always work to their physical extreme. But Penny can take care of those painful walks between the tables and the kitchen.”

Ha believes that once robot servers are widespread, the value of serving as a profession will change: New servers won’t have to be educated to memorize table numbers or menus but rather how they should treat customers, recommend food and contribute to offering a better experience.

At the moment, Bear Robotics is focusing on the U.S. market and Korea, Ha’s home country, before immigrating to the United States. “We’re receiving so many orders from all over the world - we can’t keep up,” said Ha. Production takes place in its U.S. office, but Ha plans to take this to Asia one day.

The recent Series-A funding will mainly be used to boost manufacturing under a long term goal to one day realize mass production. Penny is currently operating in some TGI Fridays branches, Villa de Charlotte in Korea and several U.S. food chains including Compass.

Bear is the most visible start-up in serving robots, and yet the CEO says the company is still at a stage where it has to prove its business model and scalability to its investors.

“In Korea there’s always spotlight on the first mover, but actually it’s the first ‘scaler’ that gains big success. Google, for example, wasn’t the first search engine. It was a well-made one - that’s why everybody around the world used it,” he said.

“A competitor may do better than us even as we implement trials and errors. The only way to survive is to be the best in what we do; constantly check on our model.”

BY SONG KYOUNG-SON [song.kyoungson@joongang.co.kr]

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