April 28, 2017

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Why Baristas Won't Be Replaced By Robots (Yet)

Every day we edge closer and closer to true artificial intelligence, an unstoppable force that will, in all likelihood, put masses of people out of work as jobs are increasingly automated and we turn to A.I. to do human jobs for a fraction of the cost. With the introduction of the world’s first robot barista, are our lovable human coffee makers under threat?


Earlier this year, coffee/tech company CafeX installed a robot barista in a shopping centre in San Francisco, signalling what may be the beginning of the end for baristas. The concept is simple; you place your coffee order via an app, which is sent to the CafeX robot to make, and upon completion, you pick up your coffee from the “cafe” (if you can call it that).



Admittedly, the CafeX robo-barista, which should really be called The Caffeinator, is pretty impressive. In terms of efficiency, it puts many cafes to shame. You even get a choice of coffees from a couple of different roasteries, a nice touch. If reports by the BBC and Wired are to be believed, the coffee is quite tasty. However, how will it fare when compared to real cafes?


In terms of coffee quality, I think it is fair to say that the quality is likely comparable to high street chains such as Starbucks or Costa, but that it cannot match the output of trained baristas in speciality coffee shops. Why can I say this with such confidence? Well, humans have something that machines don’t; taste.


In our own cafes, our baristas dial in the coffees daily, setting very precise brew recipes to create optimal taste. If we change to a new roast date of beans, or if the coffee is not tasting quite right, the dial-in process will be repeated and optimised. This convergence of scientific method, with a very human desire for perfection, is easily comparable to the care taken by fine dining chefs... or robotics engineers.

Can you make coffees as pretty as this one, robots?

 

In addition to taste, baristas are also human (well, mostly). The joy that comes from connecting with another human being is completely removed from the CafeX robo-barista. I don’t know about you, but I’m a little sick of the amount of time that I spend looking at a screen. Even if the CafeX is cheaper and quicker, I’d trade it for a chat with the staff at a coffee shop any day.


Robo-baristas are also unable to answer customer questions or recommend products to customers. Humans will have the upper hand in the service industry for a long time to come due to our ability to empathise with others and provide opinions that aren’t pre-programmed. Don’t know what a particular coffee is or want to ask what would work best for you particular flavour preferences? A speciality barista has got you covered, the CafeX… maybe not.


Most importantly, at Machina, we like to think our baristas have a bit more personality than their bionic equivalent. Robots clearly can’t create a welcoming space to enjoy a coffee with a friend. They can’t choose music to match the atmosphere of the cafe. They can’t chat to customers, whether the conversation is about coffee, Game of Thrones or existential dread. And that’s why robots won’t be replacing us just yet.

Written by Oliver Scotting, Cafe Manager & Barista


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