Robot Barista Debuts in San Francisco

The automation juggernaut continues to crush jobs throughout the economy. Today’s example is the robot barista which prepares upscale caffeinated beverages without human workers.

In San Francisco, Cafe X’s robot coffee machine produces cappuccinos and lattes for sleepy iPhone users and others.

Interestingly, barista is a storied occupation for young people, and not always in a good way. In fact, the job has been used as an example of college graduates working far below their education level, particularly liberal arts grads. A report last year found that nearly half of college graduates were underemployed, though not literally as baristas.

Now, with robot baristas appearing in the local cafes, that job will be lost to humans of all degrees of education.

The coming machine age creates a tough future for young people who must consider what jobs will soon be done by robots or software (e.g. financial services). They must pick a career that is irregular, without predictable activities that a machine can replicate cheaper and faster.

Automation experts say the transformation to machines and software will only increase. Oxford researchers forecast in 2013 that nearly half of American jobs were vulnerable to tech replacement within 20 years. Rice University computer scientist Moshe Vardi warns of a dystopian future in 30 years when humans become largely obsolete and world joblessness stands at 50 percent. The Garner tech advising company believes that one-third of jobs will be done by machines by 2025. Forrester Research Inc. has a more optimistic view, that there will be a net job loss of 7 percent by 2025 from automation — but that’s still a deficit when more jobs are needed as population increases.

With the employment market shrinking severely because of smart machines, why does Washington keep immigration on auto pilot? America no longer needs uneducated welders and wrench jockeys to build automobiles and other manufactured items, but immigrants continue to pour in as if there were jobs for them. Remember:

Automation Makes Immigration Obsolete

While many of the news reports about the robot barista emphasized the cool tech aspect, Forbes included the employment picture.

Baristas Beware: This Robotic Cafe Is Coming For Your Job, Forbes, January 30, 2017

Behind a large pane of curved glass, a six-axis robotic arm swivels back and forth with hot cups of coffee. Two automated coffee machines in the back grind coffee, pull espresso shots and steam milk. The robotic arm — made by Mitsubishi and designed for industrial applications — places the cup near the front of the glass to await pickup. Once the customer arrives and inputs the four-digit code sent to their phone, the drink is sent down a tiny elevator and delivered to the customer. It all seems a little excessive for what amounts to a glorified vending machine, but the end result is a delicious espresso drink.

This is the first robotic coffee shop from Cafe X in the United States — the first Cafe X has been up and running for several months now in Hong Kong. Located on the ground floor of the Metreon shopping center in downtown San Francisco, Cafe X opens for business on Monday morning. The robotic cafe will serve only espresso drinks, and the prices are reasonable compared to other artisanal cafes: espresso costs $2.25 and an eight-ounce latte costs $2.95. The beans come from local Californian coffee roasters AKA Coffee, Verve Coffee Roasters and Peet’s Coffee. (Verve’s single-origin coffee bean adds $1.)

The San Francisco-based startup Cafe X is run by Thiel Fellow (which pays budding entrepreneurs to drop out of college) Henry Hu. Hu, 23 years old and a dropout of Babson College in Wellesley, Massachusetts, is unconcerned with what his invention might do to the baristas’ livelihood. Like many entrepreneurs in the field of automation, he likes to say his technology will enable people to do more useful things with their time. Hu got the idea after waiting impatiently in line for a coffee, he said. He noticed that much of the baristas’ time was spent simply moving cups around.

“Our reason for using a robot is not to save money,” Hu said on the Friday before the cafe’s opening. “The reason for using a robot is that it allows people on-site to be more productive, because moving cups around a thousand times a day is not a very productive thing. It’s a very repetitive, boring thing, which is why we have a robot doing that. ”

Instead, Hu said coffee experts can now use their skills to set recipes on the Cafe X machine. The coffee roaster partners come into Cafe X and tune the machine to make sure the espresso is coming out to their liking. The machine then remembers the roaster’s specifications and brews the espresso consistently.

Even so, Hu does aim to save money by cutting people out. Each Cafe X location requires only one human present to administer the machine, assist customers on orders and educate them on the espresso options. He guesses that each Cafe X system can make up to 120 drinks an hour. Hu aims for the cost of rolling out a Cafe X location to ultimately be less than what it takes to open a normal, human-operated cafe — which Hu estimates can cost between $250,000 and $350,000.

Cafe X has raised a $5 million seed round from Khosla Ventures, Social Capital, Jason Calacanis, Felicis Ventures, Silicon Valley Bank and the Thiel Foundation. Besides the Hong Kong and new San Francisco locations, the company has also started installing private Cafe Xs into tech company offices around the Bay Area, though Hu wouldn’t say which companies.

Cafe X is hardly the only tech startup aiming to automate the food service industry. San Francisco quinoa restaurant Eatsa lets people place and receive orders without ever having to interact with a person — yet the food is still prepared by people in the back. The secretive Momentum Machines, also based in San Francisco, is trying to build a machine that automatically assembles gourmet hamburgers, but has yet to open its first robot burger joint. And Mountain View, California-based Zume Pizza is automating pizza delivery with a robotic pizza factory and delivery trucks.

Cafe X is just another in the many areas where automation is taking hold of our lives. Whether these jobs will be replaced by other higher value jobs remains unclear.

“If you or I lose a job for some reason, we’re not going to sit around doing nothing,” Hu said. “We’ll try to do something else, and whatever else we do, hopefully it’s more useful than what we were doing.”

As more and more people find their jobs overtaken by the ferocious spread of automation, your local barista may find that sentiment of little comfort.

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