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Are robots better baristas? Berkeley’s Bbox café thinks so (berkeleyside.com)
30 points by incomplete 37 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 60 comments

I'm sorry, but pushing a button on a fully automatic espresso machine does not make the robot a barista. I'd like to see the robot make me an espresso using a semi-automatic espresso machine, making sure to sample the espresso throughout the day to check for over or under extraction, and adjusting the grind to compensate for changes in air pressure and temperature.

> making sure to sample the espresso throughout the day to check for over or under extraction, and adjusting the grind to compensate for changes in air pressure and temperature.

Sounds like the perfect job for a computer. I highly doubt most baristas are checking atmospheric pressure or are even mindful of minute temperature charges throughout the day. Since these aspects are things that are monitor-able at high precision, it’s doubtful that your average barista is going to outperform a computer. The social aspects of the barista are a worthwhile, but unrelated debate.

Sorry I didn't word it well. I'm not suggesting the baristas are contemplating the temperature and air pressure, but rather those things will affect an espresso shot and the level of extraction, and thus the barista will need to test the espresso throughout the day to determine if it is pulling differently (more/less extraction resulting in sour or bitter notes) in the afternoon compared to the morning due to weather changes. So I don't think it was unrelated debate.

Except that they don't do that so it is probably moot whether or not the robot does it.

Every good coffee shop does this.

But please, do enlighten me as to whether a computer can determine if coffee tastes good.

While there are some limits to what people consider good and or acceptable, a lot of taste is more of a consensus thing among people rather than something empirical. To use a pun, it’s up to people’s taste and that’s ill defined.

Can the flavor and properties of a substance be measured? Can people define the ideal measurements? Then ultimately yes.

> barista noun

> a person who makes and serves coffee (such as espresso) to the public


Sounds to me like this robot is a barista. Do you also think Starbucks baristas aren't baristas, just because they don't work in a high-end coffeeshop?

By that definition, serving instant coffee at a roadside ‘revive and survive’ would be considered barista work.

Is the McDonalds employee who makes and serves coffee from the pot a barista too?

They might meet the dictionary definition, but I don’t think they would meet the expectations held by those who use the term.

What is wrong with saying that McDonalds has baristas?

> person who makes ...

Are these robots persons?

Isn’t that limitation because up until now it’s always been people, but in the future could include robots or trained (non human) animals?

Was the Automat staffed with machine waiters?

Oh well done you. I guess I meant the robot is not a good barista.


And then there's the (albeit brief) interaction. Sometimes a barista is someone you get to know, who knows exactly what your order is, and begins preparing it as they see you walking down the street toward their shop. They are someone with whom you can have a strong acquaintance as you talk of small things. Sometimes these acquaintances become friendships...

I would never go a cafe to see a robot press a button. If I only wanted coffee I'd get a nespresso or similar (which are never as good in my experience).

Would a robot know to suggest you to occasionally try a different roast? Would a robot know to NOT suggest you try a different roast?

Lots of online services have recomendaron engines powered by some sort of AI. What makes coffee so different?

To me the fully automatic espresso machine IS already the barista.

As someone who works remotely I'll go out to the coffee shop for some brief human interaction. Sometimes it's the only time in the day I interact with people outside my home.

Personally I don't see the draw to a goofy robotic arm that slings espresso. Vending machines are already a thing, coffee included. This just seems like an excessively expensive way to implement one.

I work at home, and if I wanted to, I could have a computer right by my bed, and I’d never have to leave it. But I use a typewriter, and afterwards I mark up the pages with a pencil. Then I call up this woman named Carol out in Woodstock and say, “Are you still doing typing?” Sure she is, and her husband is trying to track bluebirds out there and not having much luck, and so we chitchat back and forth, and I say, “OK, I’ll send you the pages.”

Then I’m going down the steps, and my wife calls up, “Where are you going?” I say, “Well, I’m going to go buy an envelope.” And she says, “You’re not a poor man. Why don’t you buy a thousand envelopes? They’ll deliver them, and you can put them in a closet.” And I say, “Hush.” So I go down the steps here, and I go out to this newsstand across the street where they sell magazines and lottery tickets and stationery. I have to get in line because there are people buying candy and all that sort of thing, and I talk to them. The woman behind the counter has a jewel between her eyes, and when it’s my turn, I ask her if there have been any big winners lately. I get my envelope and seal it up and go to the postal convenience center down the block at the corner of 47th Street and 2nd Avenue, where I’m secretly in love with the woman behind the counter. I keep absolutely poker-faced; I never let her know how I feel about her. One time I had my pocket picked in there and got to meet a cop and tell him about it. Anyway, I address the envelope to Carol in Woodstock. I stamp the envelope and mail it in a mailbox in front of the post office, and I go home. And I’ve had a hell of a good time. And I tell you, we are here on Earth to fart around, and don’t let anybody tell you any different.

Electronic communities build nothing. You wind up with nothing. We’re dancing animals. How beautiful it is to get up and go do something. [Gets up and dances a jig.]

- Kurt Vonnegut https://thenextweb.com/shareables/2011/04/11/r-i-p-kurt-vonn...

I'm also working remotely and whenever I move to a new city I find the nicest coffee place and spend half of my work time there to be around people.

I think it is worth noting that if it becomes cost effective to have a robotic arm setting up your coffee and enough customers appreciate the intrinsic benefits, businesses will move towards that direction. In the future, we might see human-led coffee shops as a niche market!

In terms of human interaction, just like in the past, humans will always find ways to get their share of interaction.

> In the future, we might see human-led coffee shops as a niche market!

Basically Tokyo right now

The draw is that you can get barista-quality espresso drinks for cheaper. Labor is the biggest expense of coffee shops.

Doesn't sound like it is barista quality.

"As for flavor, it tasted like a blend of Nescafé and shelf-stabilized milk. Convenient, serviceable, like coffee from an office vending machine."

I'd be interested in them doing a blind taste test.

Yes, there's human interaction and other subjective factors going into what people report taste as - much like knowing whether an artist traced a photo when making art (demonstrates skill without technological assistance)

But sometimes this changes - eg Europeans initially rejecting Californian and Australian wines, then grading them well in blind tests, then accepting them more (with some hold outs for traditional regions or high prestige makers etc)

I agree 100%.

Baristas are great for customer loyalty, and a good barista will have dozens of daily regulars that look forward to interacting with them and are emotionally invested in the coffee shop. A robot-staffed coffee shop won't.

A barista is not just someone that makes and brings coffee; there are a bunch of other tasks that need to happen at a coffee shop. This robot misses a ton of tasks that would be critical for any real coffee shop:

- Pastries, paninis, food handling of any sort in general.

- Bussing tables, cleaning messes, washing dishes.

- Refilling/rotating creamer, sugar packets, etc.

Most importantly, robots have no passion for coffee so your customers will have no passion for your coffee. Good baristas have pride in their craft. May as well drink office or 7/11 coffee if a robot is making it.

Also I think the goal of this project is ethically questionable; it's not freeing people from the tedium of the assembly line. It's replacing fulfilling, social, OK-paid jobs that many people enjoy, and for the exclusive benefit of the capitalist class.

This is ridiculous. By your logic, people who have a "passion" for cars wouldn't want to buy a car built on an assembly line that has lots of robots on it, which every car factory does today.

I don't know about you, but when I go to a coffee shop, I never talk to the barista. The barista is behind a machine, where I can't talk to them. I talk to the person at the counter where I place my order, and who takes my card, gives me my pastry, etc. Why do I need a human making a drink when a robot can do it better.

It's insane how tech people, of all people, will try to claim that humans can do easily-automated, repetitive things better than machines.

I’d say it’s more like a car enthusiast scratching their head at the new self driving car model that is controlled by a giant robotic arm and a giant robotic leg that occupy the entire drivers seat.

The machine is already a machine. it doesn’t need an external machine to physically control it. Thats what networks are for.

No, that's an entirely separate issue and only particular to this one dumb machine in this article. Yes, I completely agree, having an automatic coffee machine run by a big mechanical arm that just presses the "start" button is really stupid and inefficient. But that's not the issue here in this comment thread about replacing human baristas with machines, in an ideal situation where the machines really can make drinks as good as, or better than, the humans. People here are decrying this automation and claiming that "human interaction" is oh-so important, and it's not. I don't talk to baristas: they're standing behind a big machine, and are busy doing something, so why would I interrupt them? If I want to chat with someone, that's what the cashier and/or server are for. Do these silly people go and talk to the cooks at restaurants too? And do they decry the obsolescence of telephone operators and elevator operators?

That is a very ugly solution in my opinion. TFA they set out to make a bit of performance art out of it with “machines operating machines” but the result is dystopian not beautiful. Seeing a robotic arm with n degrees of freedom which looks like it could weld cars just to move a coffee cup around in space...

And it probably makes terrible coffee. Notice the lack of late art, and the poor quality of the foam.

You can actually get decent milk foam these days with automatic frothers. James Hoffman reviewed an automatic espresso machine, and said that he finds little excuse anymore for subpar latte foam when you can achieve such high quality in a domestic machine.


Edit: What I mean by this is that we have the current technology to do "decent" latte foam and that anything else should be considered a short cut, human or robot derived.

"I'm getting notes of dried robin's blood, old dirty cashews and just a hint of a robot's bathwater."


I don't get it. There have been fully-automatic, vending machine style espresso machines around for a long time. This seems to use technology suited for a different purpose; it's certainly a big robot, but it doesn't exactly seem good at making coffee.

Ha. Exactly. This is a very large, expensive, and inefficient vending machine.

Year and years ago, there used to exist a profession where a man behind a bar mixed softdrinks together for customers on demand, often with custom embellishments like cherries, ice cream and the like. This was a very popular, very trendy job. And customers enjoyed the experience. You can still find elderly people today who lament the almost complete demise of the soda jerk.

I'm pretty sure barista will eventually go the way of the soda jerk. It's inconceivable to this generation; people can't imagine giving up the 'human touch' and personalization. But one day, maybe 20 years from now or two or three generations from now, convenience of automatic systems will win and the barista will be relegated to one or two retro novelty shops in large cities. And the people in this thread will be the new elderly curmudgeons, complaining about how young people live life too fast and fucked it all up.


These robots take the space of a human, but it isn't safe for a human to be in there at the same time as the robot. Plus, people can self-optimize. If you put another robot in there, it would barely increase throughput. Two humans would easily fit in that space, and they could roughly double throughput during peak hours.

Look to CafeX for a slightly different approach at the exact same concept. Except the whole coffee shop fits in a 2 meter cube.

Personally I think the most effective coffee machine won't even use these gigantic industrial robot arms. But they make for an entertaining gimmick.

This really drives me nuts. You get this long article about the "discerning coffee connoisseur", and yet you have a picture of the robot pouring coffee in a paper cup.

To me this is exactly like seeing an article about sommelier and a picture of a guy drinking wine from a paper cup. Well no it's actually much worse: wine is rather cold compared to coffee so it doesn't extract the taste of paper and plastic as much as coffee does.

I really really can't understand how anyone would spend over $2 (often significantly more) to drink anything out of a disposable container. One espresso costs them at most $0.20 in beans, electricity and water, you mark it up 10 times, you gotta give me the option of a ceramic or glass cup. Compare that with a glass of wine, which usually is marked up only 2-3 times in a restaurant...

I do. Technically I have a stash (maybe 100+) of the thin-foam cups and lids to go with them.

You ask why? One really simple reason - the thermal conductivity is really low both due to low mass and the material.

By comparison, putting the coffee in one of my nice Illy collector cups that I've had for a quarter century (and now are probably worth $100-150 per cup) causes some dissonance when I drink it. The cup is cold on a relative basis to the coffee. And my espresso machine does not have a cup heater. And making a cup that hot would be uncomfortable to touch.

Ten years ago, I would have thought this was madness, and now I worry about not having access to the cups anymore (I got them through a friend who ordered them commercially).

Once you get used to drinking out of such a cup, the coffee is the entire experience. There is no real notice of a cup getting in the way of the frothy goodness of the coffee between the cup and your taste buds.

Most coffee shops (caffes)[1] normally serve in disposable cups, unless you ask for different, anyway, and upwards of 90% take the disposable cup, 5% bring their own and the rest ask for a house cup —Im approximating but I don’t think I’m far off.

[1] Peets, Blue Bottle, Andy Town, Ritual, Starbucks and mom and pops.

100% of cafés in Italy serve coffee in non-disposable cups and it rarely costs more than a euro. It's a cultural thing, not economical. Most food and beverages are take out by default in the US.

But typically people drink it quickly in the cafe, don't they? Which is easier when it's a small cup of espresso, as opposed to people in the US getting half a liter of hot milk and sugar with a small amount of espresso added...

No doubt. But given the context here of “connoisseur” it’s odd you’d bring up Italian coffee because Starbucks’ Milano Roastery is learning that most Italians aren’t used to and aren’t willing to pay more than a euro or two for coffee which means it’s not the best beans or roast. So very average coffee in fancy cups. As I said, taste is very regional and is subjective. Compare what Russians, Turks or Greeks think good coffee is.

I call bullshit. Go to any grocery store in Italy and the prices range from 1 to 7 euros for a 250 g pack, go to a local roaster and you can go up to 10, yet the cup of espresso is always 0.80-1.20 euros. Why is that? Given the amount of coffee that goes in a cup, the price of that is negligible while you pay for location, service etc.

So given these considerations, as an Italian if I pay more than 3 euros for a coffee I expect:

* to be served in a bone china cup

* to be served by a polite waiter

* to be sitting at an outdoors table with view of some major monument

* to have a glass of mineral water and a small cookie come with it

(As an aside I once had a coffee at one of those fancier Starbucks in the US, it was 4 dollars + tax and honestly not very good)

(and I'm not going to get started on a rant on the sheer cultural colonialism and appropriation that goes with what you just said)

Ceramic cups are available for as little as $0.40/each. I think your idea might actually work, even if guests are allowed to bring their cups home.

[0] https://www.alibaba.com/showroom/ceramic-cup.html

It's not quite "my idea", it's how hot beverages have been served and drank for centuries before the invention of disposable cups.

Somewhat related fun fact: did you know that the waffle ice cream cone was invented to make the ice cream "to go" before paper cups were widespread?

I wouldn't trust a $0.40 cup from China to be completely free of toxic materials.

CafeX in San Francisco is pretty nice, the major advantage is that it takes up very little space (which saves a lot of money due to the high rents in SF) and it's pretty fast, I generally get my coffee there much faster than from a local Starbucks or Blue Bottle.

I don't expect automated cafes to be as good in every way, but if they can get 80% of the way there with higher speed or lower costs they'll have my business.

Is a person that operates a fully automatic coffee machine a barista?

I love a good espresso but you can‘t even get that at most places. A lot of people seem to like Starbucks I don‘t think they serve a good espresso. It seems to me that they specialize in hot milkshakes and not coffee.

Hahahaha hot milkshakes. That is so revolting but so accurate.

I'm a bit surprised to see this at liberal Berkeley. It seems to be poised to wipe out scores of low-skilled retail/labor jobs, at the benefit of the business owners and maybe a mechanical engineer.

Reminds me of John Henry from the great Johnny Cash:

"Now did the Lord say that machines ought to take place of livin'?

And what's a substitute for bread and beans? I ain't seen it!

Do engines get rewarded for their steam?"


This is a really interesting idea. If they can replicate what a human barista can do, this has alot of potential. Customers make accounts to order coffee from their phones, so you can send a survey after the person gets their coffee and ask how they liked it. Depending on what they say, the robots can make the coffee a little different next time until they find what the customer likes. So you can have a consistent cup of coffee that is made just for you.

Just an opinion but this is fantastic tech, just lacks any humanoid resemblance, more like an industrial car factory assembly line. In the future of course, we will have humanoid robots that appeal to our emotions as well because why not?

The foam is really bad - not smooth or creamy and plenty of bubbles

I'm going to go all Australasian Coffee Snob here: They may well be correct for Berkeley, but they've got a large barrier to acceptance outside of the US.

Another, more human, take on this from Barista Hustle:


TL;DR (I watched this a couple of months ago, so this is an attempt a remembering the thesis. I also don't know if I agree or not that this is a good future, but it is the future presented in the video) -- the robots are coming, which is going to give us push-button coffee. There will still be people there to give you a human experience, and they'll get to focus on that experience instead of being split between making coffee and talking to you.

Skipped the intro, watched 10 minutes on my break as a part-time barista and it's great so far.

Only if we don't have to tip them...

I’m guessing they will add a tip option within a year. Only it will be a donation to some charity. (Read, tax deduction)

Americans have been culturally trained to tip. It’s easy money.

Yep, I finally took a trip to western Europe recently and was shocked at how much cheaper it was to eat out at nice restaurants than in the US. Once you factor in the tax and tip, eating out in the US is very expensive.

I was also shocked at how much cheaper decent hotel rooms are there.

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