Gavin Pathross likes his Americano at a particular strength, with exactly 2.8 shots of espresso, an order that human baristas struggle to get right. But the baristas at Ratio, his new coffee shop in Shanghai, are anything but human. Customers specify, order and pay for their coffee via their smartphones. A robot arm then grinds the beans, pumps shots of espresso and carries out the rest of the work. The robot can supply water and coffee in any ratio desired—hence the shop’s name. Once it has prepared the beverage, it passes the finished product to a human waiter for serving.
Ratio’s robot baristas are part of a trend. Hamburger joints and other fast-food outlets are starting to be robotised in some places. Now it is the turn of cafés. Mr Pathross’s Shanghai shop is, at the moment, a one-off. But Coffee Haus is a commercial system intended for deployment in airports, offices and other high-volume locations. It is the brainchild of Chas Studor, founder of Briggo, a firm in Austin, Texas. Under his guidance Briggo’s engineers have developed a device that is a couple of metres tall, four metres across, and can turn out 100 cups an hour.
Briggo has cut human beings out of the loop completely. A Coffee Haus machine lets you order and pay for your coffee via an app—and, if you have done so remotely, keeps your drink in a locked area, accessible via a code which it texts to you. For those present, the Coffee Haus robot provides a certain amount of theatrical appeal (a window lets you watch the coffee being made). But Mr Studor says the real aim is not theatre but to carry out the same processes as a standard coffee bar does, with robotic precision. For example, a big challenge for human baristas is that different types of coffee have different ideal “extraction parameters”—how many beans to how much water, brewed at what temperature and for how long. During busy spells, humans sometimes struggle to get all of these things right every time. The robot is inhumanly perfect.
Café X in San Francisco takes advantage of the showy appeal of robots. Its computer arm, which is described as having “a quirky personality,” even waves to customers. Café X sells mostly from kiosks in streets and shopping malls. Orders can be made from an app or via touch screen at the kiosk itself. But it has not dispensed with human attendants and has someone on hand to talk to customers and provide a human touch.
All developers of robot baristas stress the speed, reliability and consistency of their systems. They give the convenience of vending-machine coffee without the horror of it. And coffee is only the start. Soon, such devices will be making tea and other drinks at the tap of an app. Human servers, meanwhile, will be freed from the drudgery of preparing endless lattes, to concentrate on customer service. Whether the outcome is viewed as people and machines each playing to their strengths in a harmonious team, or a corporate techno-dystopia with a Starbucks twist, is perhaps—like preferences in coffee—a matter of taste.