Will this "robot barista" put the espresso bar out of business?

© Briggo via Quartz

Over at Quartz, Christopher Mims writes a very long 3,000 words about a vending machine for coffee.

Think of it as the future. Think of it as empowerment. Your coffee, your way, flawlessly, every time, no judgments. Four pumps of sugar-free vanilla syrup in a 16 oz. half-caff soy latte? Here it is, delivered to you precisely when your smartphone app said it would arrive, hot and fresh and indistinguishable from the last one you ordered.

He is waxing eloquent about the new Briggo coffee kiosk, which is "trained by an award-winning Barista" to deliver perfect coffee. Mims sees into the future:

...as in the techno-utopian Singularity, whose adherents believe that some day we will all upload our brains to computers, once a barista’s essence has been captured by Briggo, his human form is just a legacy system.

However, probably 90% of the coffee joints in North America use automated espresso machines where the barista is doing little more than pressing a button; this machine seems to take up a lot more space to replace the button-pusher with an app.

Mims also notes that the pod people at Nespresso and Illy have already taken over much of the market for auto-coffee. Briggo claims it is better than the usual machine:

The Briggo coffeebot “can measure humidity and shock time and can automatically adjust the grind of the bean to compensate,” he [CEO Kevin Nater]says. “We have visibility with that bean. We track every single shot of espresso. We know if it’s within our quality spec, and we fully control the whole supply chain. We can go well beyond what a high-attrition part-time employee can do.”

Perhaps I am biased because one of my kids is what they would call "a high-attrition part-time employee." She knows her customers and they know her. There is a human touch to the whole process. I don't know what every theatre arts and philosophy grad would do if there weren't jobs for baristas.

Perhaps I worry that the automatic machine will only use disposable cups, will take a lot of electricity to run and a lot of water to self-clean, compared my local barista who knows that I want a china cup for my double espresso in the morning.

Perhaps I like to actually choose the kind of coffee that goes into my cup, looking for Fair Trade certified instead of the Direct Trade that Briggo uses, a model that avoids the costs of third-party certification. The big machine doesn't give me that option.

chip machineChip machine/Promo image

Futhermore there have been so many attempts at building vending machines that do a better job than people, and in most cases they have failed miserably.

dumplingsSometimes doing it manually is a selling point; seen at the Great Wall outside Beijing/CC BY 2.0

Chris says that "Kitchens are just factories we haven’t automated yet"; I hope he is wrong. There are some things that are better made by hand.

Will this "robot barista" put the espresso bar out of business?
Christopher Mims thinks so, and I hope he is wrong.

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