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Posted May 06, Baristas will soon find themselves competing with a clone army of 'baristabots' who can brew perfectly personalised flat whites without ever taking a sick day. And they aren't the only workers at risk, writes Mark Pesce. The humble barista, who toils at a job that barely existed a generation ago in Australia, has become one of the fixed stars of Australian urban life.
Anyone can pull an espresso shot, but a good barista knows how to balance time, temperature and motion to produce the right crema and the right taste.
It's not as easy as it looks. From the arrival of a bag of raw beans, to the moment the customer puts a cup to their mouth, every step in the preparation of coffee has been automated.
Vast roasteries use numerically-controlled machinery to heat and stir the beans, packing them into bags. Other machines grind them, brew them, squirting the brew into tiny capsules for reconstitution in the home. Every aspect of coffee is automated - except in the local cafe.
The cafe remains a space dominated by people doing things that machines can do. It remains mostly automation-free. That may be a good thing. After all, machines make terrible coffee.
Contraptions that grind the beans and brew the espresso on the spot have never produced anything but a very ordinary cuppa. In our very mechanised civilisation, it feels as though we've approached the limits of what we can automate. A robot can build a car, but can't teach you how to drive.
We've established the limits of what can be achieved. In October, on the campus of the University of Texas, a strange new contraption appeared: Four-and-a-half square metres of floor space encompasses an entire cafe, powered by a sophisticated robot that's been 'taught' how to make a perfect cuppa by Patrick Pierce, an award-winning barista.
Briggo has hundreds of sensors to read temperature, pressure, and anything else that might in some way shape the outcome of the final product.
These sensors feed back into the wealth of information imparted by Pierce, so Briggo can constantly adjust to the ambient situation, fine-tuning its brews. Briggo produces a completely repeatable coffee experience. Once you've decided what you like, it can be reproduced endlessly, on demand. It will never forget the particular settings that make your cuppa unique. And it can email those settings to a Briggo in another city, so your perfect brew can travel with you. Briggo itself is completely repeatable.
Build the robot, download Pierce's professional capabilities into it, turn it on, and watch it go. Fire up a production line robot-powered, naturally and soon there'll be a clone army of 'baristabots', every one of them knowing how to brew the perfect flat white just the way you like it. These baristabots learn on-the-job, just as humans do, their experiences improving their capabilities, refining their skills, consistently producing better and better brews.
It will not be long before a baristabot crafts a much better cuppa than can be had from any except the most outstanding barista. All that, and no need for sick days, nor penalty rates for overtime. A capitalist's dream - and a unionist's nightmare. A generation ago Australia had just a handful of baristas. Within the next generation we will return to our starting point, as baristas across the nation get replaced by baristabots.
The few humans left pulling shots will survive as local colour for artisanal cafes. Hipsters tolerating crappier cuppas in a search for authenticity.
Barista as museum piece. I write this within view of my two favourite baristas, who pull my morning jolt, laugh at my lame jokes, and send me on my way with a smile. They enjoy their jobs, but I don't see any future in which they continue to hold them. My cafe may not disappear, but those jobs will. Decades spent holding the line against the complete robotic re-engineering of automobile production left Australia with an industrial 'overhang' that has finally collapsed under the weight of its own costs.
We could not envision a future where good jobs meant highly skilled employees tending hundreds of highly intelligent and adaptable robots. We persistently believed automobiles required the human touch, and that our economy required front-line assembly workers. I've heard it said, "Reality is that which kills you when ignored long enough. With field trials both of mining bots such as automated trains in the Pilbara and a 'farmbot' , what will be left?
As robots displace the human element within the Australian economy, how will we survive? Many believe safety lies in education into a profession, thinking that lawyers and teachers and bankers and doctors will hold the line against the robot onslaught. Over the next several weeks, I'll draw a picture of how this industrial overhang has infected nearly every sector of the Australian economy. Almost everything we imagine as a safe harbour is under immediate threat.
Three professions seen as fortresses against this disruption - medicine, finance and education - are particularly vulnerable. That's where we'll start, because the robots are coming for our doctors, bankers and teachers. We may not be able to choose the times in which we live, but we can fearlessly face the challenges of a new world of baristabots and self-driving trains, of embedded intelligence and its explosive growth in capability.
View his full profile here. The way of the future, I'm surprised Aussies didn't make it. Probably in no small part to high wages Australia is on the cutting edge of remote control and automation. It'll be interesting what else they can automate. Mark you write that your favourite two baristas 'laugh at my lame jokes, and send me on my way with a smile". Will a baristabot be able to do this?
It sounds dystopic to me. Virgil, I hope I can get some hope and advice as well. I have a happy knack of choosing vocations that become redundant. My current choice is leaving me for the Philippines so after what is expected to be after 13 years I will again be looking for yet another Diploma. I got 22 years out of the first Diploma, and 3 years from a Cert 4. My days are nearly over but a decade in something would be nice.
I like consistent, high quality, banter free coffee. I also like cars made to high engineering standards without the cost and variability of human interference. It's a better way. As to jobs - that's a whole other discussion, but without cashed up consumers to buy the product, the robots will have no jobs either, so I have some faith that whatever evolves is unlikely to do us all out of income.
No, far from dystopia, this sort of advancement enables us to change the way our society is structured. Whether we change for the better or worse is up to us and I think if we want to change for the better, we should try very hard to make sure the Packers, Murdochs and Rinehardts don't get to decide how robot automation will fit into a future society.
But can they chat? Seriously - for the same reason I don't use those ridiculous self serve cash registers at the supermarket, I won't be spending any money at a business which uses these. If I process and bag my own goods at the supermarket, do I get a discount? The supermarket is saving wages, but they aren't passing that saving on to me - so only a fool would play that game. We all hear the government say that while jobs are disappearing in manufacturing, service jobs will increase, yet they are disappearing just as fast.
Nope, no robot barristas for me thanks, just the lovely lady who makes my morning cuppa. I used to think the same way. I have noticed a trend at one supermarket I go to, however, where there are often queues at the 'manned' registers yet none at the self-scanners. If I've only got a few items and in a bit of a rush, I'll go to the self-scanner and risk stuffing up the process and have the machine give up on me, which happens to me less and less now.
Queues at 'manned' registers will be like boiling frogs. How long a queue can you take before you make the change? I still make a point of queuing for the human checkouts, rather than use the self-service checkouts. I've made the point to the person overlooking the self-service registers, when they say there's some self-service registers free when I'm waiting in line.
I'd rather keep someone in a job. Usually ATMs, bank and work hours don't sync very well; so I usually get money out when the banks are closed; which makes your not-very- subtle attempt to paint me as a hypocrite wide of the mark.
I think Jimmy's point was well made. If the banks were open longer, they would be required to put on more staff to provide face-to-face service. It's not like the banks don't make a profit. Then there's also bill payments to consider. Do you pay online or do you line-up at the post office? Many post offices are open on Saturday mornings now. Mind you, the jobs over technology argument has a limit. I don't think anyone would suggest that millions of people could be made to dig mines with their bare hands or primitive tools.
I wasn't particularly trying to be subtle, or paint you as hypocritical, just pointing out replacing people with machines is not a new thing and the world hasn't ended so far. My bank isn't open the same long hours as my supermarket is.
Plus Banks have learned the hard way that people differentiate on service not just who has the largest number of ATMs. I always use cash makes it harder for the bank to track what I spend my money on and sell to organizations that use it to tailor advertising towards me the same reason I don't have any loyalty cards I don't want my in box filled with advertising. Both, depends where I am.