Sci-fi movies like to unleash malevolent, scheming computers that are out to destroy humanity.
On Wall Street, computers wreak havoc with high-speed algorithms and lightning-fast trades that churn through data and crash financial markets.
When computers run amok on restaurant websites, they grab up all the good tables.
Have you tried to get a Saturday night reservation lately?
The most popular restaurants often have very specific reservation cycles. On the 6th day of every month, the top-ranked global destination Noma opens its bookings for three months out and might see 20,000 requests on that one day. San Francisco’s hot new State Bird Provisions releases future tables at 4a.m. and the prime times are all gone long before sunrise. Unless you want the 5:30 or 10:30 slots that seem to be all that’s ever left on Open Table or Urban Spoon, you’re out of luck.
Robots are stealing your dinner.
‘Bots’ (derived from robots) are software programs that do your bidding in cyberspace. They’re best at repetitive and mundane tasks, like endlessly scouring websites for tables to book. They’ve been operating for years on eBay, where they’re programmed to swoop in with a just-high-enough bid during an auction’s last nanosecond, and on ticketing sites where bots keep a step ahead of site security to scoop up the best seats, often for ticket brokers and scalpers. Now they’re invading restaurant websites and online reservation systems.
Not all coders live on Red Bull and pizza.
The Bay Area is a high-density region for both food lovers and tech lovers, and you’ll find plenty of overlap. There the reservation bots have sprung from hacker culture and they’re dominated by open-source software like Mechanize and the free service at HackerTable, which lives up to its descriptor as reservations at elusive restaurants by combing other booking engines for cancellations and snatching up rare and rarified tables at places like The French Laundry and Chez Panisse.
In New York, reservations are bought and sold like it’s the trading floor of the stock exchange.
There’s no programmer at the helm of Today’s Epicure, but a former hotel concierge who knows the value of New York’s most coveted tables. An annual membership fee of $1,000 (shorter terms are also available) gives access to impossible reservations at the highest profile restaurants of the moment. In addition to the cool thou to join, Today’s Epicure also tacks on a variable fee that hovers around $100 per booking, rising with the lateness of the date and the hotness of the venue.
Bots and scalpers have been widely criticized for the undemocratic way they pervert the sales process, whether it’s an auction website, a popular restaurant, or a concert ticket. The anti-scalping movement got a boost this summer when it was widely reported that Beyoncé fans were shut out of her concerts by ticket-buying bots. The tour’s dates in Washington, D.C. set off a particular furor when tickets went on sale one morning at 10a.m. and were all gone—snapped up by automated transactions—by 10:01a.m. A handful of state legislatures have already passed or are considering anti-scalping regulations targeting ticket brokers. If computer programmers and deep-pocketed diners keep crowding the rest of us out of restaurants, the backlash is sure to follow.