Technology

Robot as barista? Automation moves into service sector.

At the newly opened Cafe X in San Francisco, a large robotic arm prepares your coffee instead of a traditional barista, one of the newest examples of automation in the service industry.

There’s something different about the way Cafe X serves coffee. 

Customers at the San Francisco coffee shop don’t place their order with a cashier. And there’s no barista behind the counter to froth up cappuccinos, either. At Cafe X, a robot does all the work.

Instead of baristas, Cafe X employs a Mitsubishi 6-axis industrial robot that prepares and serves coffee as part of an entirely automated system. Customers order and purchase their specialty coffee either through on-site kiosks or a dedicated app, and the robotic arm compiles and delivers the beverage, entirely removing human interaction from the equation.

As one of the first fully mechanized coffee shops, Cafe X represents a developing trend toward automation: a movement that lowers cost and increases efficiency, but also carries the potential to eliminate jobs. Especially for the entry-level, unskilled workforce, such shifting trends threaten to eradicate positions that millions of people count on for employment – although that may not be all bad news.

"Innovation creates new jobs as well as replaces and eliminates old ones," Joel Mokyr, an economist at Northwest University, tells The Christian Science Monitor in an email. "At this point it is far from clear how these flows counteract one another." 

As the most recent example of a traditional service shop transformed through full automation, Cafe X joins previous pioneers like Zume Pizza, another Silicon Valley establishment that utilizes robotics to ensure consistent quality throughout their products.

And service automation isn’t limited to the food industry. In 2016, Hilton Hotels introduced a pilot program involving a robotic concierge. Named Connie, after founder Conrad Hilton, the artificially intelligent device represents a partnership between the hotel company and IBM, and has sufficient capabilities to maintain conversations with guests as well as answer questions about the local area.

The Hilton specifically stated that the new concierge “isn’t about reducing staff,” as Jim Holthouser, the vice president of global brands, told USA Today. “That’s not where our minds are whatsoever.”

Yet reducing staff, or cutting industry jobs, seems to be a consistent fear when automation comes into play.

Almost 13.5 million people in the United States work in either accommodation or food service, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. More than 16 million work in some type of retail trade, many of whom fill entry-level positions, jobs that are generally first to be eliminated by technological improvements.

In some hotels, for instance, front desk staff have been replaced by kiosks. At other hotels, booking agents email guests key or bar codes, giving them room access without ever having to speaking to an employee.

Such measures can provide a boost to hotels' bottom lines while improving customer satisfaction. But that comes at a cost to workers, as President Obama brought up in his national farewell address.

"The next wave of economic dislocations won't come from overseas," Mr. Obama said. "It will come from the relentless pace of automation that makes a lot of good, middle-class jobs obsolete."

Customers, however, often benefit – or at least their wallets do. Cafe X has found that it is able to provide high-end roasted coffee for $2.25 per eight-ounce cup, something that elsewhere in San Francisco could demand a significantly higher price.

"In today's world, you have two options for getting a cup of coffee: You're either in and out with something subpar, or you’re waiting in a 15-minute line for a great cappuccino," Cafe X founder Henry Hu told Roast Magazine. "I started Cafe X to eliminate that inherent compromise and give people access to a tasty cup of coffee consistently and conveniently."

That could be cold comfort to workers who see their skills replicated by machines. But the rising use of technology tends to create new lines of work to maintain newly implemented systems, as well.

James Bessen, an innovator and current lecturer at Boston University who studies the history of technological innovation, says that when examining automation in low-wage environments, often the elimination of a low-wage, low-skill job creates the need for higher-skilled employees.

Word processing, for example, eliminated the need for typists or even typesetters but increased the need for positions like graphic designers, he tells The Christian Science Monitor.

And while that may not seem relevant to the service industry, Cafe X still needs well-trained employees to fulfill essential operating needs. "We still have to work on the supply chain, recipes, maintenance, and customer support," Mr. Hu told TechCrunch.

But Mr. Bessen isn't convinced that the service sector will ever completely shed the need for jobs working directly with the public. While automation improves one dynamic, the industry as a whole often benefits from human interaction. While "restaurants have been playing with various forms of automation for decades," he says, "for service occupations, human interaction is very important."

And although industries may lose frontline customer service jobs to automation, changing technologies will likely necessitate a host of new positions. But in the bigger picture, even the very nature of work is shifting, with the rise of the gig economy, Dr. Mokyr says.

"One possible way to look at it is that the concept of a 'job' – a long-term relation between a single employer and employee – itself may become obsolete," he says.

For Mr. Hu's part, automation systems like the one at Cafe X's will never "replace baristas or the coffee shop experience that so many people have come to love – we don’t aim to do that," he said. "What we're offering is the best possible experience for people who are looking for consistent specialty coffee to go."

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