The opening of a new ramen restaurant in Seattle usually does not get our journalistic engines firing.
But add a little robot action to the mix, and things get really fun.
That’s what happened Wednesday evening as members of the GeekWire team got an inside look at Hokkaido Ramen Santouka. The new ramen restaurant in Seattle’s University Village shopping mall serves up piping hot bowls of Hokkaido-style ramen where the yummy broth is made by simmering (never boiling!) pork bones for 20 hours.
But more importantly, we got to meet Sota — a talking AI-powered robot that greets restaurant-goers and offers specific dining advice based on one’s age and gender. Sota, described in press materials as “Seattle’s first ramen robot,” uses the Microsoft Azure Cognitive Service and is tied into a Microsoft Surface Hub screen to visually guide interactions.
Upon my arrival to Santouka, the plastic-encased robot — about the height of a wine bottle — scanned my features for a few seconds and expertly guided me to the gyoza.
Good choice. I love gyoza.
Sota also identified that the restaurant was crowded that evening, noting that the ramen was very popular.
Over time, Sota is designed to learn more about me, including my meal preferences so the robot can offer better suggestions each time I arrive at the ramen restaurant. The company also plans to investigate the possibility of bill payment through the robot, and using the data collected to alter menu selections.
Jun Yoneda, who serves as CEO of the 29-year-old restaurant company, said Sota is accurate at predicting menu options, and the robot will get even better over time as it learns more about customers. There are no plans at this time to use robots to serve ramen at Santouka, and Sota is more of a novelty than a workforce competitor to the kitchen or serving crew.
It’s a bit unusual to see a robot interacting with restaurant patrons, and Sota is somewhat inconveniently located behind the main welcoming station. Even so, Sota — which is made by Japanese telecom giant NTT — will likely be a hit in geeky Seattle, especially in University Village, which boasts the country’s first Amazon Books store and popular Microsoft and Apple stores.
When asked about the robot at a press briefing at the new Seattle restaurant, Santouka founder Hitoshi Hatanaka said “ii nee,” translating to “it’s great, isn’t it?”
Robots are making inroads into the restaurant industry, and Yum Brands CEO Greg Creed recently said that automated systems could replace many functions in restaurants by the mid-2020s. Pizza Hut, which is a Yum Brands company, is testing robot waiters at select restaurants in Asia. Automated restaurants also are coming to the U.S., and GeekWire’s Taylor Soper gave Eatsa a try in San Francisco last year.
Andy Puzder, the former CEO of CKE Restaurants, which operates Carl’s Jr. and Hardees, told Business Insider last year that the idea of a fully-automated restaurant — where you “never see a person” — was a compelling concept that was worth a try. Puzder was nominated by President Donald Trump for the Secretary of Labor earlier this year, but withdrew a day before the confirmation hearing.
Here in Seattle, stealthy startup Otto Robotics recently raised investment from Draper Associates and Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen’s Vulcan Capital for low-cost modular robotic solutions that are designed to assemble, cook and deliver food “with no human intervention.”
Take a look at my interaction in the video below. Unfortunately, Sota could not order me a cold Sapporo or a warm sake — at least not yet. AI still has a long way to go, folks!