The coffee tasted… just like coffee. The robot had made an iced coffee with espresso and placed it on the counter for me. Welcome to the future—or, more reasonably, the present. I still had to put the milk in my coffee.
The robot named ADAM started serving coffee this month when Botbar Coffee, which claims to be New York’s first robot-powered coffee shop, opened in Brooklyn, New York. But ADAM is more of a server-in-training than a job-killing robo-barista right now. The shop is still testing out the business model, robot and offerings for customers before it considers itself fully open, said co-owner Sunny Lam, who runs BotBar with partner Denise Chung.
When walking into the futuristic-designed store, it’s hard to miss the large, egg-shaped droid, swirling his two arms around to grab cups, fill them up, mix in ingredients and serve the drinks, all from his perch on the counter. A second ADAM robot stationed outside the shop seeks to reel in foot traffic by “dancing”—moving the joints of its robot arms—to draw the attention of passersby.
Customers order from a simple menu interface on a large touchscreen and pay with a typical card swipe. Among the options are various espresso-based coffee drinks, like lattes and cappuccinos, as well as different teas. New York City iced coffee drinkers won’t be surprised, but, for the uninitiated, the roughly $6 coffee might be pricier than is common. (The checkout screen even brings up the familiar option to leave a tip—a seemingly ludicrous proposition for a robot server, though the shop, as we’ll see, also has human employees).
The coffee order is then digitally transferred to the big bot, which starts making the coffees in order of the customer’s purchases.
ADAM does its job with surprising smoothness. Its motion looks like a hybrid of a two-armed octopus and a character from Disney’s WALL-E. The drinks aren’t instant, mostly because the coffee machines ADAM uses aren’t. One can imagine those painful seconds of watching your espresso maker dribble out coffee. All in all, it takes a few minutes for the drink to be prepared.
The robot’s interactive capabilities — ADAM’s ability to talk to customers and take their orders verbally using generative A.I. technology— are currently switched off because the company that produces ADAM is still fine tuning it for the New York location (an ADAM robot in Las Vegas already has the conversational capability switched on, the company says).
For all its Star Wars-like connotations, the robot coffee bar experience still comes off as a little sleepy. There’s no verbal interaction, and a sign in front of the robot tells customers not to touch it. “I am working,” it reads.
Lam, the store owner, says that will change in about six months, when ADAM’s generative A.I. traits are activated. When that happens, he says, ADAM will be able to chat with customers, host a child’s birthday party from its countertop perch, and serve cocktails.
Lam sees a big future for the business, though reviews so far are mixed — multiple online reviews complain about the “soulless,” connection-lacking experience — others online and in person seem positive.
Ryan Bisaillon, a customer and Brooklyn local said it was a unique experience. He’s never seen anything like it before, he said.
“I just walked by, I was going to pick up some groceries from Walgreens, and I saw a robot making coffee,” Bisaillon said, laughing.
His coffee was good, and it wasn’t weird to him that a robot made his coffee — that’s why he went in.
He also doesn’t think ADAM is a sign of an incoming robot takeover, not yet, at least.
“When it starts replacing the human cortex in the brain, stuff like that, you have real issues,” Bisaillon said.
Is this coffee-slinging droid a novelty or a job killer?
While robotic arms and other automation technology have been in service on factory floors for years, ADAM is part of a new wave of bots designed to interact with regular people every day (and potentially to eliminate huge numbers of service jobs).
Autonomous cars with advanced AI and laser sensors from the likes of Waymo and GM-owned Cruise are being tested in places like Arizona and San Francisco as an alternative to human-piloted taxis. Cooler-sized delivery vehicles by Starship slowly prowl university campus sidewalks ferrying burritos and colas to hungry students. There are even other robo-servers, from companies like CafeX, Yanu.ai and Yummy Future, waving automated arms around to serve drinks to the thirsty in airports, stadiums and movie theaters.
The robot in the coffee shop that served me was made by Richtech Robotics, a Nevada-based robotics company that already has contracts to implement 100 of the droids in boba shops and bars around the country.
The in-store barista ADAM in New York costs roughly $200,000 — the price varies depending on the customizations and training requirements — but Lam predicts its value will come from consistency, reliability and the novelty of its service appealing to customers, he said.
“We consider this a value,” Lam said. “The technology is there. We only need to fine-tune. If no one put it on the market, it’s never going to make it work, because we need to learn from people.” Lam’s barista ADAM is a test run for more future locations, though he says he isn’t sure exactly what that will look like yet.
“We still need humans to support the whole thing,” Lam said. “If we don’t have anyone, there is nothing we can do.”
The human employees aren’t being completely removed. BarBot will have a handful of employees helping customers in the store with things the static robot can’t do and more in the kitchen making food. It’s not meant to be a fully autonomous endeavor.
In fact, the store had a help wanted sign hanging in the window when I visited. Finding human labor is a bigger problem for the store right now than the robot, Lam said. There is an added responsibility to the job description for people wanting to help manage such an expensive piece of equipment.
Karen Li, an employee at the store, says the robot requires cleaning and assistance. She thinks of ADAM as a helper. “I don’t take that as replacing humans,” Li said.
The question though, is what happens when robots like ADAM evolve to the point where they become more than mere novelties?
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Shawn Fontaine, the culinary director at a senior-enhanced living center in Philadelphia, became a fan of robotic automation after a Richtech robot helped keep his kitchen functioning efficiently during COVID. He believes the biggest barrier to robots in coffee shops is “the human touch.”
“To say that robots will take over the industry or take over a full-time position of a human behind the counter? I don’t think so,” Fontaine said. “I think there’s gonna be so much need for that personal interaction.”
If the recent advances in generative AI products like Chat GPT and Stable Diffusion have taught us anything though, it’s how quickly technology is evolving. Conversational AI is already so good that some experts believe that the Turing test — the notion that true artificial intelligence is attained when a human can’t tell if they’re talking to a machine or a real person — is no longer applicable.
The friendly face Fontaine wants to shoot the breeze with while sipping his espresso could look like ADAM’s sooner than anyone expects. For now, though, I think most would agree that it would just be nice to skip the line and smile back as a barista hands me a cheaply priced, quality coffee, no matter whether it’s human or robotic — maybe with the milk already in it.
This story was originally featured on Fortune.com
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