Pizza, the delicious cheese-conduit that mostly every lactose and gluten-tolerant person enjoys (when they’re not being territorial about it). It’s obviously a sublime product, with a proven track record for sating the appetites of the broke and hungry everywhere–but the mascots selected by its purveyors can often leave the average consumer wanting. From the single-minded, borderline Orwellian “pizza pizza” sloganeering of the Little Caesar’s guy to the irritating, obstructionist tactics of Dominos’ the Noid, the fast food pizza industry has often relied on questionable and alienating figures to promote their appetizing carb discs. This won’t be the case for long, or at least it won’t be if you’re a fan of helpful robot hosts. Thanks to Pizza Hut Shanghai, we now have Casper.
Casper’s duties outreach those other characters as well, as his job goes well beyond simply popping up in TV commercials and talking about how good pizza is. Instead, he’s an actual robot that can be found in ph+, the high-tech concept version of Pizza Hut that sits in the basement of the impressive Shanghai Tower. Casper is two and a half feet tall and mann’s the host stand, where he will greet you, give you a number for your table, and lead you to your table with a polite “follow me.” Casper basically embodies C3PO’s butler-like servitude without any of his more aggravating social quirks–or a slightly more humanoid version of R2D2. And because using automation in one of the last existing industries to not rely heavily on it can be kind of a frightening prospect, they’ve given the robot a very cute design that makes it all pretty hard to resist. Here he is! It even looks like he’s kind of wearing a bow tie!
While the Star Wars droid comparisons are apt, many have also likened Casper to Eve, the cool robot that helps Wall-E get out of his post-apocalyptic philosophical funk. That movie also suggests that all of humanity will devolve into crippling obesity in outer space, where our every whim will be served by advanced robotic technology. With our newly automated pizza servants, it’s only a matter of time before this becomes our reality, so it only makes sense for us to pick up some of that film’s design cues, for the sake of familiarity.
High-tech restaurant concepts and pizza would seem like strange bedfellows if the two things didn’t have such a rich history together. For example, we’ve gotten so used to ordering food from our computers like the agoraphobic hermits we all are, we’ve maybe forgotten that the Dominos’ online delivery service (and the infamous pizza tracker) predated the prevalence of services like GrubHub and Seamless. Now, it’s hard to think of a good or service that can’t be delivered by some new, enterprising startup company–a far cry from long nights spent staring at the slow flicker of red that marked the slow road to pizza acquisition. I mean, we all probably remember the name of at least one of the helpful Dominos employees that helped prepare our cheesy-bread order.
All joking aside, this isn’t even the first robot-based restaurant project engineered by Yum China Holdings, the company behind China’s entire Pizza Hut, KFC, and Taco Bell market. In fact, they seem dead-set on making sure that a number of their fast-food restaurants are staffed almost entirely by robot help. Just last summer, they opened a KFC in Shanghai staffed entirely by robots. And while the robots at the shop had limited abilities when it came to understanding more nuanced dialects and accents, it’s only a matter of time before China’s fast food landscape is a veritable Westworld. The Shanghai Tower’s ph+ isn’t even the first Pizza Hut to get in on the action. Pizza Hut Japan is rolling out a robot waiter named Pepper, who looks kind of like a malnourished Michelin Man.
Now all we can do is wait for the thinkpieces about the ethics of not tipping your robot waiter.