Here's the latest evidence that human interaction is becoming a quaint relic of the past: You can now order your morning espresso from a robot.
The startup Cafe X has opened a robotic coffee kiosk in San Francisco's Metreon shopping mall. You order through an app, an espresso machine makes the coffee on the spot, and an industrial robot arm serves the drink through a glass case that looks like it was ripped out of a jewelry store. The idea is to merge the convenience of a vending machine with the quality and customization available at traditional coffeehouses. So if you like Peet's, you can order a $2.25 Americano made with the roaster's Espresso Forte. If you're a coffee snob, you can order a $3.95 flat white made with Verve's single origin Honduras La Mina. All without waiting in line or talking to a human being; a notification pings your phone when the drink is ready.
At first glance, Cafe X feels like the perfect distillation of the tech industry in 2017: optimized, caffeinated, and deeply antisocial. But the startup offers a compelling logic: As the great design researcher Don Norman wrote on this site recently, people are terrible at doing simple, repetitive tasks—exactly where machines excel. So technology performs best when it relieves people of aggressively monotonous work, like making espresso. Cafe X's 23-year-old CEO Henry Hu envisions robots taking over mundane jobs elsewhere in the food and drink service industry. Which isn't just a bit of science fiction. Robots make up the entire waitstaff at Eatsa, an eatery that serves quinoa bowls, in San Francisco and Berkeley.
But before Hu spreads his vision of automation, Cafe X has some challenges to overcome. Drinks are customizable, but not that customizable. If nonfat, decaf gingerbread lattes are your drink of choice, you still have to go to Starbucks. Cafe X drinks are also expensive: roughly $2 to $4 for an 8-ounce cup. A 12-ounce espresso drink at Starbucks or Peet's costs about the same. (Hu says the value added is in the quality of the ingredients such as premium coffee beans and organic milk.)
The larger hurdle may be a matter of design: Cafe X's Metreon kiosk puts the robot on display as if it were an artifact in a museum—a good idea when you're selling novelty, a bad idea when you're selling a daily habit. To become more than a curio, Cafe X will have to normalize its robot. The startup has wisely tapped Ammunition, a design firm known for seamlessly integrating technology into day-to-day life, to create the second version of the kiosk.
The elephant in the room, of course, is whether robo-coffee will put baristas out of work. I doubt it, at least not anytime soon. Similar predictions loomed over Briggo, a robotic coffee shop designed by Fuseproject, a few years ago, and they never came to fruition. (In fact, we haven't heard much from Briggo lately; according to Yelp, the company's Austin, Texas, kiosk closed, and no one from Briggo replied to my request for comment.) Coffee has a culture. And that's something a robot can't replace.