I heard about a robot barista that was being trialled by Melbourne cafe, Once Alike, just before Christmas. I assumed it was just a gimmick, and probably nothing more than a trumped-up Nespresso machine. As I was heading to Melbourne for business, it took me next to no time to find a fellow coffee junkie prepared to get up at the crack of dawn to check out exactly what was happening at the intersection of coffee and AI.
We arrived a few minutes before 7am the next morning and the line was already starting to form. It soon became apparent that this was far more than any Nespresso machine. This was a serious robot, with two fully functioning arms that did absolutely everything that a human barista would do. It was incredible. You went up to the keypad, typed in your request, right down to what kind of milk you would like and how many sugars you want. Once the order is confirmed, you step back and watch the orchestra begin to play.
It is mesmerizing to watch the two arms working in unison, doing everything your regular human barista would do. And having just done a tour of some of the most AI advanced plants in Japan, what I saw in this tiny cafe resembled some of the most high-tech factories I had seen on my tour.
The bottom line, in a few minutes, the coffee arrives, lid firmly in place, your name comes up on the order board and the coffee is ready to be enjoyed. The verdict from my partner in coffee tasting, Lalita Lowe, was definitive and while not perfect, she stated emphatically "that the quality was an 8 out 10" on her coffee scale. And believe me, Lalita is very tough when it comes to rating and evaluating her coffee. Baristas everywhere are known to quake in fear whenever she walks into a cafe.
While reviewing some of the online chatter about Robot Rocky (that's the name that this Robot Barista is fondly known by), one common theme began to emerge. There were many comments from coffee aficionados (of which Melbourne has millions), stating that they didn't like the idea of having a robot make them coffee, no matter how good it was or how cute his nickname was. Their reasoning was that they formed a relationship with their barista of choice, and this is an almost spiritual relationship and certainly not one to be replaced by a robot.
Has AI finally met its match? I think it has. There is no doubt that the coffee made by Rocky was pretty good (and certainly far better than a lot of coffee's I've bought from cafes over the years). The experience was a novelty and it was very cool watching the two robotic arms doing their thing, which involved every part of the quality espresso production, right down to putting sugar into the cup and even putting the lid on the takeaway coffee cup.
The process was smooth, efficient and an absolute blast to watch, but it lacked the human touch, the morning chatter, the wry "I really need this coffee" banter and the camaraderie of being surrounded by your fellow caffeine junkies waiting patiently for their brew of choice.
The developers of the Robot Barista made it very clear that they never really intended Rocky to replace the overall cafe experience. Liam Wilkie, one of the engineers behind the project and a barista himself for over 10 years explained, "the entire set up fits into a tiny space, it's completely self-sufficient, right down to having its own water supply, meaning these fully automatic cafes can be set up in spaces that would not normally be able to accommodate a full-time coffee shop.
We don't really see this as the end of human baristas, in fact quite the opposite. The demand for coffee continues to increase and we are looking to fill another niche that makes it cost effective to put an automated cafe in a location that wouldn't normally support one due to the expense of setting up and running on an ongoing basis."
So to answer the question "Is your favourite barista going to be replaced by a robot?", in my opinion not in the near future. Our baristas are safe. But if you get a chance to visit Melbourne's Once Alike cafe, and to get a coffee from Rocky, it's a very cool experience that will put a big smile on your face and make you ask some of the big and perplexing questions about the future of AI and the future of coffee.