high-frequency dining

Bots are battling for restaurant reservations in San Francisco

July 26, 2013
July 26, 2013

Online reservations are supposed to make snagging a table a breeze, but when it comes to in-demand restaurants, the process is going the way of stock trading and concerts on Ticketmaster: Pretty soon you’re going to get beaten by bots, big time.

Diogo Mónica, a security engineer at payment start-up Square, was trying to find a seat at the popular San Francisco eatery State Bird Provisions on the restaurant reservation site Urbanspoon. Tables can be booked up to 60 days in advance, with new time slots opening up every day at 4:00 a.m. By 4:01, they were gone. “It quickly became obvious,” he wrote on his blog, “that these were reservation bots at work.”

To retaliate, Ars Technica reports,  Mónica wrote his own computer code to check for available reservations and grab them on his behalf. “You fight fire with fire,” he  said, “so I made my own reservation bot.” At last, a table was his. He then released the code online to level the playing field—at least for anyone who knows how to run a ruby script.

It’s a great story and a win for Mónica, but it’s not exactly a happy ending. With bots fighting bots, we’re setting ourselves up for a world in which the hottest restaurant reservations can only be purchased from scalpers at exorbitant prices. Mónica, for his part, joked on Twitter that he will have to take a page from high-frequency traders for the next round of battle: Now that everyone has access to his code, he’ll have to set up shop as close as possible to the reservation system’s server to beat everyone else by a microsecond or two.

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