Why you should care
Swarm intelligence design is putting Nepal’s Rabin Giri on the map.
Robots waiting tables are nothing new. Part of the reason they haven’t taken off, though, is because they’re clumsy and more than a little intimidating. But that’s changing fast, and the best evidence might reside in the remote, mountain-strewn nation of Nepal.
At Naulo restaurant in downtown Kathmandu, Ginger and her two robot colleagues “converse” with customers and even tell jokes in English when prompted. Their hand-painted, rounded shapes and large, blinking, almost sympathetic eyes help assuage my unease as they take my order of chicken fingers and fries.
Ginger is the brainchild of Rabin Giri, 26, and his colleagues at Paaila Technology, an award-winning robotics and artificial intelligence startup formed by a group of college friends and engineers in 2016. The robots are more advanced than other iterations in the region: They communicate directly with the kitchen staff while using swarm intelligence and speech recognition to serve diners. When idle, they dock themselves against a nearby wall, allowing patrons to eat undisturbed.
Giri’s plan: keep most of the research and development in-house in Nepal, outsource mass production to China and then sell the robots all over the world.
The debate around workplace robots is hugely divisive. Depending on where you stand, the speed at which AI is advancing is either exciting and valuable or utterly terrifying. Anyone who has seen conversations with Sophia, a Hong Kong–built social humanoid who’s left some of the world’s top interviewers speechless, will be both intrigued and worried by the prospect that the gap between man and machine is constantly shrinking.
Giri sees robots as a force for good. “AI systems and robots are reducing jobs that require performing repetitive mechanical tasks,” he says. “We have to understand that robotics will make a shift of the workforce from mechanical to intellectual tasks, not the elimination of jobs.”
As chief operating officer and lead robotics engineer at Paaila Technology, Giri hopes his startup will be at the forefront of that change. His broad plan for global robotics domination looks something like this: Keep most of the research and development in-house in Nepal, outsource mass production to China and then sell the robots all over the world. That the company’s 19 employees are all Nepalese is a major source of pride.
While Giri is coy on the specific details of his master plan, the startup’s track record suggests his ambitions are not outlandish: In addition to Ginger, the company has built and operates Pari, a robot receptionist deployed at several Kathmandu banks who in coming months will be upgraded for use at hospitals, movie theaters and malls. Ginger 2.0 will be released this year with software that facilitates taking food orders verbally. Paaila also makes and sells chatbot software to Nepalese businesses. Taking the crown of Nepal’s most creative startup, awarded by a leading Nepalese mentorship company in September, and having a restaurant that serves up free publicity as well as food suggests it’s on the right track. The company has sold five robots so far — Giri refuses to reveal how much they cost — and its biggest rival is the Suzhou Pangolin Robot Corp., a Chinese service robot company that sells its model, Alice, for about $3,000.
The field of service and waiter robots is undergoing rapid expansion, albeit with mixed results. Two restaurants that deployed locally made robots in Guangzhou, China, closed in 2016 when the public’s initial curiosity wore off and owners found themselves with robots unable to carry out basic tasks such as taking customers’ orders. California-headquartered Bear Robotics, on the other hand, last year received a $2 million investment from the Korean food delivery app giant Woowa Brothers to help develop its food delivery robots. But Bear Robotics’ model, Penny, lacks humanoid features. A café in Budapest boasts a dancing, Japanese-manufactured robot, but a team of IT experts must be on hand to monitor its workings.
Shy and laconic, Giri cut his teeth as a student at the robotics club of the prestigious Institute of Engineering at Tribhuvan University. There, he was part of a team that represented Nepal and won numerous robotics competitions in Indonesia in 2015 and Bangkok a year later. Long before that, Giri, whose parents run an electrical goods store in Ramkot, west of Kathmandu, had developed an interest in robots; by the time he was 11, he had built his first — a miniature bulldozer.
His colleagues say Giri’s strengths lie in his technical skills and a determination to put the company on the global map. He works 12 to 14 hours a day, with classical Hindi music playing in the background. Single and childless, he eats and even sleeps at his office. His rare breaks from city life are devoted to hiking the Himalayan foothills. In all, his introverted persona is well-suited to the tedium of programming, testing and fixing the robots.
“Even a slight error in the system can make confusion when two or more robots are working together, as in our restaurant,” says Paaila Technology director and Naulo owner Aayush Kasajoo, who plans to grow the restaurant concept internationally. “Rabin created a system in which robots communicate among themselves and work accordingly — the three robots decide among each other who will take the order.”
The challenges Giri and his colleagues face are not insignificant. “To create a system that can have a conversation with a human we have to build models, and they take several days to train on a large quantity of data,” Giri says. The startup lacks computers with high RAM and central processing unit capabilities, meaning it must spend around $600 per month on DigitalOcean, an American cloud infrastructure provider. That’s a huge sum in a country where the gross domestic product per capita stands at a little over $1,000.
Then there’s the dearth of physical infrastructure in Nepal, worsened by a 7.8 magnitude earthquake that killed close to 9,000 people in April 2015. The team’s workshop in Kathmandu is a basic affair without air conditioning or heating, and their equipment is dated. Yet none of this has tempered Giri’s ambition as his nation buzzes about bots. “Bringing Sophia the humanoid to Nepal [to speak at] a U.N. innovation conference last March, a robot who was awarded citizenship by Saudi Arabia, has further created interest among Nepalis,” says Bal Krishna Bal, head of computer science and engineering at Kathmandu University, and an AI pioneer.
One thing’s for sure: Robots are coming to a restaurant near you. Don’t be surprised if there’s a “Made in Nepal” stamp on them.
Read more: How Americans are preparing for the day robots threaten their jobs.