Domo Arigato, Mr. Robata

Robots Now Work at a Capitol Hill Restaurant

Junkichi Robata Izakaya is the second Seattle restaurant to employ AI-powered Sota robots.

By Stefan Milne June 19, 2018 Published in the July 2018 issue of Seattle Met

Is this the first inauspicious step in the AI takeover?

Sota is 11 inches tall, blue and white, with hugely dilated pupils and thin irises that glow the fluorescent yellow of institutional lighting. It sits on the bar in Capitol Hill’s new Junkichi Robata Izakaya beside a display of pineapples and limes and an enormous white Chinese yam.

Robata, Sota explains—mouth glowing red with speech, tiny arms arbitrarily gesticulating—is a Japanese grilling method in which skewered food is cooked over high-heat carbon charcoal.

Sota itself is one of three AI-powered robots to land in Seattle restaurants recently—two at Junkichi, one at Hokkaido Ramen Santouka in University Village. Plenty-USA owns both restaurants. In Japan, Plenty has already introduced Sota robots in its restaurants and seen as much as a 10 percent bump in reservations.

To interact with Sota, you download a phone app, get a code from your server to connect, and you’re off to the brave new AI world.

Sort of.

Artificial I’ll accept, but intelligence is a stretch. There are set scripts—touch a button in the app and Sota says, “Kanpai!” (Cheers!) or “You are pretty.” Or you can request menu tips: “My recommendation from the sushi is the battera. This is a delicious marinated mackerel. Shiso leaf. Gari ginger. And whiteboard kelp. My favorite.”

But when I want to know what the bonito flakes on my grilled Chinese yam are, Sota simply repeats the question I type into the Free Text section: “What are bonito flakes?” And while you can upload your face so it remembers you on your next visit, it doesn’t have voice recognition like Siri or Alexa.

Servers can control Sota from afar via iPad. During my agedashi tofu course, the robot whirs to life to say, “Sorry, I didn’t introduce myself. My name is Sota.”

The blond dude beside me, who ordered only “lean protein,” looks on in mild distraction, then returns to peeling slabs of salmon from his sushi rice. The woman to my left is more concerned: “Do you have to order through it?”

You do not, and cannot. You might be able to summon your server for another beer or to bring your check, but any Seattleite wary of the rise of sentient machines—of AI robots snatching up jobs and becoming our homicidal HAL-like overlords—can rest easy with Sota. It’s a mild, almost quaint gimmick. (Or maybe that’s what Sota wants you to think.)

When I try to compliment Junkichi’s uniformly friendly human workers in the app’s To Staff section—touching both “This food is delicious” and “Thank you so much”—the cooks easily within earshot do not respond, either inured to Sota’s charms or pretending to be. But when I rise to leave, the human host prompts them into a rousing Japanese thank-you: “Arigato gozaimashita!

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