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Saturday, January 28, 2023

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Servi, Hilton’s robotic waiter, sparks discussion over future of hospitality


Servi joined staff and students at the UH Hilton in October and is the focus of a study currently being conducted by the Hilton College of Hotel and Restaurant Management.| Photo courtesy of UH

The University has made a new addition to its fleet of food-service robots. Alongside Starships, students can now expect to find Servi, the robotic waiter at the UH Hilton

Servi joined staff and students at the UH Hilton in October and is the focus of a study currently being conducted by the Hilton College of Hotel and Restaurant Management. The study’s goal is to see whether or not customers are open to automated service. 

“We question people two times, once before they meet Servi and once after,” said Malika Jahed, a graduate student working on the study. “We want to know if Servi affects the quality of food or service.” 

The study hopes to isolate any trends that may exist within specific demographics. The surveys ask participants to include information such as their age, gender and income level. 

Dean of the Hilton College Dennis Reynolds is optimistic about the results and said he feels people are more open to robotic service than critics might expect. Reynolds said that even among demographics that are generally averse to change, such as seniors, robots like Servi have had positive receptions. 

“Initially, I thought seniors would have an issue with this type of service,” Reynolds said. “But similar machines are being utilized in senior care homes, and people don’t seem to have an issue with them.”

Though customer satisfaction is always a key priority in a restaurant setting, the UH Hilton is also a learning environment for students studying hospitality to get hands-on experience in a professional setting. 

Reynolds sees Servi and similar machines as being on the cutting edge of service technology. He believes working alongside them will equip students with the necessary skills to succeed in an increasingly automated industry. 

“In the next decade, we’re going to see these types of robots just about everywhere,” Reynolds said. “It’s the future, it’s where the world is going.”

While substituting employees for robotic staff may seem like a good deal to managers and restaurateurs, it raises the concern of job replacement.

Reynolds was quick to address these concerns and said that Servi’s purpose is not to replace human wait staff. Instead, the intention is to allow employees to focus more on customer interaction while Servi handles the grunt work. 

“I think Servi will enhance interactions between customers and their servers,” Reynolds said. “It allows the job to be much more customer-focused instead of the primary concern being getting food from the kitchen to tables.”

Not everyone shares Reynold’s rosy view of the future, however. Rachel Melendes is an organizer for Unite Here, a labor union representing almost 300,000 employees across industries ranging from hospitality to manufacturing. She said she doubts robots like Servi will be replacing humans any time soon.

“Often, the technology is not particularly advanced,” Melendes said. “They can’t do what an experienced worker can. They don’t have critical thinking skills, they move pretty slowly and there is a whole list of downsides compared to an actual human.”

The development of this type of technology, and its gradual rise in popularity, is yet another example of restaurant owners’ desire to avoid offering fair pay and benefits, Melendes said. 

Hospitality and service workers have spent the last several years risking their health and the health of their families for wages that are not keeping up with the cost of living,” Melendes said. “Rather than putting money into retaining workers and improving working conditions, companies are hoping to cut costs by spending money on robots that do less than a human can.”

It remains to be seen whether Servi will become a ubiquitous part of the dining experience. For now, the jobs of the people Melendes represents remain secure. However, depending on the results of the research conducted by Reynolds and Jahed, dining may soon become a far more automated experience. 

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