Will A Robot Barista Make Your Next Latte?
We were promised—and threatened—that robot baristas would be coming to take our jobs. Now, with concerns about AI tools and ChatGPT on the rise, it’s time to examine if that threat is real.
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Last year, I was tagged in a Twitter thread about Blank Street Coffee. The New York Times had just published a piece on the start-up-disguised-as-a-neighborhood-shop, which I’ve talked about before—Blank Street has seemingly blown up overnight, opening dozens of small shops across the city. The key to the company’s success is staffing its locations with few workers: “a Blank Street store is a cozy pod built around a high-volume automated Eversys espresso system.”
Some of the people in the thread narrowed in on the Eversys, a superautomatic espresso machine that makes drinks with the press of a button. According to the article, the machines make it possible “to get customers in and out quickly and to allow baristas to focus more on customer service than on coffee.”
I understand why the folks in the thread saw a red flag when reading about the Eversys. So much of the ethos of specialty coffee is around getting a “handcrafted” drink made with care. But in the thread, I responded that the technology fueling the stores was perhaps the least interesting thing in the article (Blank Street has a lot of other red flags, including the fact that there’s absolutely no information about where it sources its coffee, or the roasters it works with, on its website).
The threat of robots taking over barista jobs has been looming for years. We’ve read warnings about how automaton baristas will replace hipster dudes with mustaches for at least a decade. So far, that hasn’t happened. In 2023, over a decade after the first glint of a robotic coffee takeover—a lifetime in the tech world—the idea is still a novelty. When I asked my friends on Twitter if they’d had coffee from a robot, those who had generally reported the experience was “eh,” and a bit unsettling.
But as the robots come for another industry I’m part of, with the recent proliferation of AI writing bots like ChatGPT, I have to wonder whether the people consumed with the looming threat of automation are focusing on the wrong thing.
Will the Robots Take Our Jobs?
I’ve been thinking about robotic baristas ever since my conversation earlier this month with Adam JacksonBey and Valorie Clark of Go Fund Bean. As we discussed the abysmal state of barista wages, I posited that many people would leave the profession soon—within the next five to 10 years if conditions don’t improve and salaries don’t increase to meet the pace of rising wages and inflation hikes:
Ashley: I wonder, if we’re talking about coffee in five or 10 years, we’re gonna lose baristas. We’re just not gonna have them.
Valorie: Yeah, that’s something that occurred to me looking at this. I was like, “If these wage trends don’t change, I don’t know how anybody continues on in this career.” And I think that there are some people who are planning for that and who are thinking, “Oh, we’re gonna move toward robotics, or AI or something.”
And I’m like, “I don’t think we’re gonna have the technology to do that in five years.” We need to come up with a different solution than having robots make my coffee.
Ashley: Right. That seems like a pretty poor solution for like, “I don’t wanna pay people more money.”
The idea that robots will replace people working low-wage jobs is already a hot topic. In December, McDonald’s announced the opening of a “fully automated” pilot location in Fort Worth, Texas. As one of the world’s largest fast-food chains, McDonald’s is rightly at the center of debates about paying employees a living wage. Fast food workers make an average of $26,060 a year, and companies like McDonald’s have spent money to block legislation that would require raises for minimum wage workers. Investing in automation seems like a way to circumvent having to pay people more money, despite what the company tells the media: “A spokesperson for McDonald’s told the Guardian that the test concept ‘is not fully automated,’ emphasizing that the restaurant does employ a team comparable to that of a traditional store.”
Of course, some malcontents see the move towards automation in fast food as a reasonable outcome, implying that it is a deserved punishment for those who have the temerity to demand better working conditions:
Central to the above argument about robotics and automation is a false causal relationship between wages, workers, and machines. McDonald’s could implement automation while still paying its workers more than it does now—I’m confident we’ll see many of the machines and technological advancements in the Fort Worth pilot store in other countries where McDonald’s workers are unionized and make significantly more than their U.S. counterparts. Robots don’t have to replace us, and machines shouldn’t be used to scare people into letting go of their rights to protest, ask for more, and demand decent wages.
However, that doesn’t mean that concerns about robotics and AI being used to quash workers and replace labor aren’t justified. Some might argue that the needle of progress cannot be stopped. I’d counter that looking to robotics to replace humans isn’t just clearly dehumanizing, but also limits the potential of technology. Instead, when we view technology as a tool rather than a replacement, we can look far beyond what’s in front of us. Even AI is just like any other tool—it can help us do something once thought impossible, or something difficult with ease, but it still requires our hands to guide.
I’m writing this piece now in Grammarly, an AI-ish platform designed to recognize grammar and spelling errors. A few weeks ago, as stories with titles along the lines of “Writers, ChatGPT Is Going to Steal All Your Jobs” flew around the internet, I received multiple emails from publications I’d written for cautioning contributors against the use of AI tools.
The fear of AI and ChatGPT is real, and I appreciate publications that stand up for writers. I’ve already heard anecdotes about clients viewing ChatGPT as a way to cut costs. Leaders and decision-makers with this perspective on AI writing tools, and technological advancements in general, are being strangely myopic in their focus on a singular goal—to get a particular task done for as little money as possible—versus imagining a world beyond what’s in front of them. What can be achieved if we use tools to innovate and change versus as a one-to-one replacement for people?
Grammarly isn’t a perfect tool (it often suggests weird edits and doesn’t have any larger context for style decisions or subject-specific lingo), but it does help me write more fluidly—I don’t get stuck on a grammatical hiccup and lose my train of thought. But I also know when to recognize its limitations when it comes to editing solutions.
If you’ve read AI-generated text, you’ve probably noticed something … slightly off. My colleague Jenn Chen asked ChatGPT to write about a handful of coffee topics, and its responses all sounded generic and empty. This sentiment was echoed by many of my Twitter friends who had received coffee from a barista robot: Some reported that the coffee wasn’t great, but others noted the coffee was just fine—it was the experience that was weird and clearly missing something.
Those making the jump from “new technology” to “human replacement”—often, bad actors trying to “cut costs” in unsustainable ways—in turn miss the intent of technology as a tool. Tools are infinitely more useful when we remember their limits, that they require human touch and animation to do their jobs. Furthermore, we must understand that a technological advancement can’t just be plugged in wherever we see what looks like a gap.
For example, let’s go back to Blank Street. One of the reasons the chain talks up its superautomatic machines is because it claims those machines can help baristas focus more on customer service. This is an instance when one could argue that technology is being used as a tool, but the line between “tool” and “goal” isn’t quite so linear. Having fewer hands-on tasks might give you more room to engage with customers, but making drinks and giving customers attention are not mutually exclusive.
Furthermore, it doesn’t seem like baristas are even given space to engage in customer service interactions in the first place. In November, baristas at Blank Street announced their intent to unionize. Some reported that they could not get simple issues addressed because there weren’t enough people on the floor. Sometimes baristas run stores solo: “The expensive Eversys machines can get finicky, they said, creating headaches during a big rush of customers,” the Huffington Post reports. “For many such problems, baristas try to reach supervisors by phone to get help. Routine maintenance, like a drafty door, can take weeks to address.”
Send In the Robots
Sometimes, my editor tells me I equivocate in my writing. I’ll pen some opinionated, declarative statement, then add a clause or follow-up sentence that brings in room for doubt, just in case I’m wrong.
But on this topic, I think I’m right: People don’t come to coffee shops simply to get coffee, and even if they did, robotics and automation are merely tools, not one-to-one replacements for baristas. Perhaps the everyday details of a barista’s job might change when you’re rubbing elbows with a huge robotic arm slinging shots, but the beats remain the same. You still need people to taste coffee, to set recipes, and to serve as the shepherds of the space.
But I was recently watching “QI,” a British television show that presents wildly irreverent facts and absurd history about a particular topic, hosted by Sandy Toksvig and a rotating cast of comedians and performers. (Fun fact about me: I love British television panel shows, and you can find “QI” readily on YouTube. But watch “Taskmaster” first. Or a supercut of Bob Mortimer on “Would I Lie To You?”.) The panel discussed bowling pinsetters, people whose job was to set the pins between bowling frames, and how machine-powered pinsetters have virtually eliminated their jobs.
Now, if you walked into a bowling alley, you’d be puzzled to see someone setting your pins for you. When considering how automatic pinsetters have become commonplace, I keep thinking about what could happen to coffee. Could there be a point where human labor seems similarly obsolete and archaic? Would the sight of a real barista making coffee for you come off as quaint or old-fashioned?
Of course, the context is different: Pinsetters worked behind the scenes, and presumably had little to no personal interaction with players. I don’t think the pinsetters offered guidance or advice on how to improve your game, or served as the information center of the alley like a cashier or the person who rents you bowling shoes (a job that has not yet been automated, at least from my limited bowling experience).
Food & Wine recently published a story about Axelrad, a bar in Houston that experimented with AI to generate new cocktail combinations. The results were interesting: ChatGPT took prompts like “make a spicy cocktail”—bartenders also used the same prompt to make drinks in an almost head-to-head battle—and developed somewhat cohesive drink combinations. However, the bartenders reported that ChatGPT favored sweet, liquor-heavy drinks that needed refinement. “ChatGPT’s lack of autonomy and need for supervision leads to the major flaw in AI’s future behind the bar,” the article reads. “ChatGPT is, well, a machine: one lacking a mouth to drink a cocktail, as well as a palate to understand if a drink is off balance.”
AI hasn’t yet made bartenders obsolete, but that doesn’t mean AI is useless. Axelrad owner Adam Brackman reports that bartenders sometimes use ChatGPT when they’re stumped on a name for a new cocktail, using AI “as more of a tool for inspiration ... (Got a bunch of odd ingredients on your bar cart? Maybe ChatGPT can make something wonderful with them.).”
I’m not scared of automation. I’m not scared of robots. These may become famous last words, but I believe that machines and AI are tools that can be used alongside humans to improve and ease our work. Instead, I’m afraid of people who believe humans can be wholly replaced by machines. I’m also skeptical of how machines have technically made our lives easier all while we still work harder than ever. If machines permitted us more rest while still allowing us to live sustainably and not have our existences written off, that’d be ideal—but thanks in part to capitalism, that hasn’t happened yet.
When it comes to coffee, I don’t think automation and robots will ever replace what makes coffee shops special. There’s probably no single commodity that is easier to get than coffee, so when you’re thinking about automation as a way to replace people—rather than as tools designed to serve a purpose—consider why people are frequenting your space to begin with.
Brackman identifies conviviality and human interaction as key to the bar experience, which is also vital in coffee shops. “While some jobs can be handled by machines, there are certain industries where human touch is needed. We have the option to order via an app at Axelrad, but we find the majority of the people come to the bar — it’s about the environment and engagement.” People come to coffee shops for a million different reasons, and if we remember that people are at the center of what makes coffee shops special, robots won't be able to take that away—now or in the future.