Robot baristas will now take your order

Coffee economics: Keith Tan woke up a six-axis Ella.

We’ve learned a lot about social distancing, now ponder coffee distancing. Robots take your order, make the beverage, and settle the payment. It’s a new day in PandemicLand. Or is it just the future?

No humans required: tomorrow’s coffee might come entirely from robot baristas

Pre-pandemic, it was a common feel-good activity: having a cup of Joe from your favorite local coffee hangout, greeted by a bright smile and a “What can I get you today?”

Today, it’s pretty different. Coffee hangouts are not really for hanging out and you can forget about asking the man at a table next to yours if you can take their one empty chair so your friend can sit down. There are no people to ask and the chairs are usually stacked up against the wall. Hanging around for a coffee is not what it used to be.

If ever there was a time to bring in the robot baristas then, this is it. It’s not just practical from a pandemic point of view, it offers attractive advantages in coffee shop economics.

Crown Coffee, a coffee bar in downtown Singapore, has become the poster child of this robot trend. The head of the operation, Keith Tan, is the man behind the story of Ella, the six-axis robot barista, who goes beyond showing a gee-whiz skill in picking up cups without dropping them.

  • Ella takes your order remotely via an online app.
  • Ella makes your coffee.
  • Ella tells you when it is ready.
  • Ella serves it.
  • Ella finalizes your bill and charges your card.
  • Ella can’t really make small talk though.

Intel partnered with Keith Tan and the two sides explored prototypes.

“Ella solves many of Tan’s challenges,” said an Intel news report. “First, the compact unit takes up a fraction of the space required for a traditional coffee bar, which translates into a cheaper retail footprint. Next, Tan is able to guarantee quality and consistency in every cup … Ella frees up labor, allowing Tan to reassign his staff to other in-store tasks like greeting customers or cleaning. But perhaps most important during the COVID-19 pandemic, customers are assured of safety as Ella operates in a sealed chamber. No human interacts with the product from the moment it’s made to when it’s served hot.”

Tan and his team plan to scale the solution to 40 other locations across the tech-savvy Singapore, then to Japan and the rest of the world. His location examples included kiosks at busy train stations. Tan thinks of robots’ roles in redefining retail as well as its job opportunities:

“What we are doing is transformational and will be part of the landscape of smart cities where AI-driven robots become deeply ingrained into our daily lives. Also, this is New Retail, which eases retail labor shortages while providing re-skilling employment opportunities for value-added technology and engineering people.”

But Tan isn’t the only one exploring this avenue.

Back in May, a robot barista in South Korea made news, involving Vision Semicon developers.

“After managing to contain an outbreak of the new coronavirus that infected more than 11,000 and killed 269, South Korea is slowly transitioning from intensive social distancing rules towards what the government calls ‘distancing in daily life,’” as per Reuters.

That same month, Robotics Tomorrow confirmed that:

“Coffee robot baristas are one of the latest forms of machines in the world of coffee automation. They deliver delicious cups of coffee in the most efficient manner and with almost no errors. Several companies around the world have begun to embrace this invention.”

So all in all, it seems like only a matter of time before robot baristas become a part of our lives.

What parts are at play to make a barista like Ella do tasks like make coffee according to customer choices and figure out how to process the customer’s payment? In addition to Xeon and Core processors, the Intel story reported on the technologies that make Ella run, like a vision processing unit (Movidius) and the Intel distribution of the open-source OpenVINO toolkit.

Machines can clearly get the coffee to you quickly enough and correctly enough (“No, I ordered a latte with lemon, not a lemonade” could become a slow-line reason of the past) but at what price? If “price” refers to humans who miss their encounters with human baristas, the question is if the public will welcome robots serving them coffee. No doubt, fancy, human-only cafe’s will start to pop up in this case.

Singapore’s minister of state for trade and industry, Low Yen Ling, may have a suitable answer. Quoted in ComputerWeekly.com, she said automation does not merely mean creating robots. In the retail context, companies that want to embark on robots have an opportunity to enhance, not kill, the customer experience:

“Ella is a good example of a digital solution that focuses on the customer experience at its core. It recognizes that customers increasingly crave for personalization and customization, and personalized customer services can now be offered with the help of technology.”

So, would you like a man-made coffee, or will a robotic hand also do the job?

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