Monday, May 20, 2024

Gordon the Robot Serves Me Coffee

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Gordon really knows how to make a cup of coffee. Cool, efficient, never a wasted move. A keen sense of style. Cappuccino? A quick steam and it’s ready for pickup. Espresso? A few rapid arm moves and – yes, there it is – the dark java looks tasty. Clearly, Gordon is the pinball wizard of San Francisco baristas.

Crowds stop and stare as Gordon works. Couples, families, everyone’s snapping pics. A guy with an iPad takes enough video for a minor motion picture. Many folks don’t even want coffee, they just want to check out Gordon.

They are, it seems, looking at the future.

Gordon is a robot, the sole coffeemaker at Café X, which opened January 30 in San Francisco’s SoMa neighborhood. The automated barista is located at the AMC Metron, in a sprawling food court with plenty of foot traffic.

The customers are clearly not drawn by the café itself. The atmosphere is starkly cold. Its walls are bare except for the cafe logo, and the only furniture is one long dark table with plastic white chairs. With its cool, impersonal name – “Café X” – this is automation as fashion statement.

But Gordon is a thing to behold. It’s a single highly polished white robot arm, enclosed in a glossy white and glass cabin. Cool light glows in the cabin, accentuating the futuristic look. The Mitsubishi six-axis industrial robot arm moves in swift and precise gestures, handling small paper cups with perfect ease, never a drop spilled.

Ordering coffee is thoroughly streamlined. I used my phone to order a cappuccino – the Café X app took my order, offering a variety of flavoring options. If I had chosen to, I could have ordered ahead of time; there are six delivery stations in Gordon’s little cabin.

If a customer pre-orders, when they arrive they type a code in the café’s point-of-sale kiosks. Their steaming hot coffee appears in the gleaming modernistic steel chute.

Really, who needs humans at all?

The irony of Café X, though, is that it’s staffed by a human helper. The day I visited, a cheery assistant, Aleks Afanasyev, a media studies major at UC-Berkeley with scruffy beard and glasses, was in constant motion.

Isn’t it odd to have a human overseer for a single robot?

“You don’t have to interact with me if you don’t want to,” he told me. But Aleks had plenty to keep him busy. If customers don’t have the app they use one of the ordering stations. When customers were befuddled by the system – frequently – Aleks stepped in to help. Inside Gordon’s cabin is a refrigerator that needs to be stocked; he tended to it. Kept busy by curiosity seekers, real customers and system tweaks, Aleks was fully employed. “Gordon doesn’t need a lunch break but I do,” he said.

The quality of my cappuccino was, well, not fantastic but seemed entirely passable. I’m not honestly sure if I could tell the difference in a blind taste test with Café X and a major coffee chain. (In fact Café X offers a choice of beans from Peet’s, AKA Coffee and Verve Roasters.) Café X keeps things simple; its menu offers only a handful of coffee drinks. If you want a double mocha chai latte with a half shot of almond milk, you’ll go elsewhere. 

To those coffee aficionados who say a robot can’t grind a savory coffee, Café X claims its roasters have labored to perfect its coffee formulations; Gordon is merely repeating the recipe. If java snobs aren’t convinced, then aggressive pricing might persuade. My 8-ounce cup cost $2.75; the short cappuccino at a nearby Starbucks goes for $3.45.

“We’re quite significantly undercutting them,” said Café X founder Henry Hu, who I spoke with by phone. This aggressive pricing is possible because “we have a lot of efficiency gains from automation.” Or perhaps the major coffee chains have such lofty prices that it’s not hard to undercut them.

In 2014, Hu was a sophomore at Babson College, studying business, when he decided to drop out and launch Café X. He’s a car enthusiast who toured auto factories in Germany; the factory robots inspired him. Also inspiring was the success of Uber. “You just push a button and a car comes, and we have an experience where you can push a button and order coffee.”

Hu, now 23 years old, grew up in Hong Kong. As he was he planning Café X, the “robotic cafes,” as he imagined them, he contacted a neighbor he knew from Hong Kong whose family business was metal manufacturing. This connection proved critical.

“If you’re a startup, or if you’re 19 years old or 20 years old, and trying to build big, complex hardware, you need either connections or money,” he said. “And we didn’t have money, so I leveraged the help of my neighbor.”

Café X has raised $5 million in venture funding from The Thiel Foundation, Jason Calacanis, Silicon Valley Bank and other VC outfits. Its San Francisco café is its second location; its first is in Hong Kong, launched in late 2016. The company plans to expand in college and corporate locations, places where foot traffic and coffee consumption are abundant.

The modest VC investment seems like smart money. If Café X were to establish a significant market presence, it’s a reasonable bet that a major coffee chain would want to buy it. With enough local outlets, Café X’s cost undercutting would be quite irritating to the big chains. Of course the big coffee outfits could themselves set up robot-staffed locations and use the money saved on labor to compete on price.

But – whoa – this all raises deep questions that are far removed from market competition. Namely: are we ready for robots servers? Are we human consumers comfortable with robots where we once had personal face time?

We already do some self-serve checkout in grocery stores. McDonalds is testing a burger vending machine, possibly inspired by Wendy’s plans to install self-ordering machines in 1,000 stores. Are we now ready to say good-by to baristas?

Coffee shops, of course, are complete environments, places to socialize, to hang out. The ambiance of Café X (or some robo-based competitor) could be spruced up to offer the warmth of current coffee shops – artful wall hangings, big leather chairs, retro acoustic music. Would we then be okay with silent, emotionless Gordons dispensing our latte?

The answer to that question matters to a whole lot of people. Roughly a half million people are employed in coffee and snack shops in the US. Automation wouldn’t cut all their jobs – even Café X has a human assistant. But one employee could oversee a large group of robots, so the majority of the half million jobs would be lost.

The future is likely suggested by something I saw at Café X on that pleasant Saturday. Sitting down the table from me was a mother and father with a baby in a stroller. The couple wasn’t snapping photos like the many curiosity seekers; they were talking with one another. They seemed happy.

For them, as far as I could tell, this wasn’t so much about “coffee from a robot” as it was “let’s stop for coffee on a weekend outing.” In other words, the fact that a robot made their coffee appeared to make no difference. Since they seemed so comfortable, it’s quite possible that eventually the rest will be as well.

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