Future Tense

The Rise of the Coffee Machines

Should Starbucks replace its baristas with robots?

Briggo automated barista.

Coming soon to an airport, college, hospital, or office near you.

Courtesy Briggo

Starbucks is, by most accounts, a decent place to work. It trains its employees thoroughly. It gives them benefits, even if they’re part-time. It calls its baristas “partners,” which is hokey but also indicative of its desire to make them feel valued. Not only is Starbucks a responsible employer—it’s a vast and still-growing one. That’s because, while U.S.-based companies can stitch clothes in Bangladesh, build iPhones in China, or outsource call centers to India, a hot latte has to be made pretty darn close to where it’s served. The food-service industry is considered by economists to be part of the “nontradable sector,” meaning that its jobs can’t be outsourced.

But what if they could be automated? What if Starbucks were to someday replace its 100,000-odd baristas with machines?

Christopher Mims asked those questions in a Quartz story this week headlined “An army of robot baristas could mean the end of Starbucks as we know it.” In July, Businessweek wrote a similar piece: “Baristas, Meet the Robot That Wants Your Job.”

To be clear, there’s no indication that Starbucks has any plans to dump its workers for machines. A spokeswoman for the company told Quartz that it wouldn’t move in the direction of automation because that would “diminish what we offer every day.” But even if Starbucks doesn’t do it, others will. And if they succeed, it could have broad implications for the future of the economy.

The stories center on an Austin, Texas-based startup called Briggo, which has created a fully automated, one-stop coffee kiosk that churns out what it believes is a superior cup of joe. You can order and pay by smartphone, customize the brewing process to your precise specifications, and schedule it to be ready for pickup the minute you arrive. And it really doesn’t care if you say “venti” instead of “large.”

Robot-brewed coffee might sound like a bizarre, even retrograde concept in an industry that fetishizes the artisanal and eschews mass production. Anyone who has tried coffee from an office vending machine can vouch for the value of the human touch. But, contrary to what you might expect, Briggo’s goal in automating coffee is not to make it cheaper or more portable. It’s to make it better.

Here’s the concept, as explained to me by Briggo CEO Kevin Nater: “There’s this unbelievably beautiful supply chain for coffee,” he says, from the way the beans are painstakingly cultivated and harvested in countries like Honduras to the way they’re packed and shipped and roasted to perfection—“and then, at the last step, when you’ve spent all this time and money trying to make the perfect product, there’s a person brewing the coffee. And that has the potential to really just kill the customer experience. So why not automate it?”

As Quartz’s Mims points out, Nespresso machines, which automatically brew a cup when you insert a vacuum-sealed capsule, have topped hand-brewed coffee in tastings. Briggo applies similar concepts on a larger scale. Each 50-square-foot, Yves Béhar-designed kiosk is stocked with fresh milk, beans, and other ingredients, and whips up frothy, made-to-order cups according to a process the company developed with the help of an award-winning barista. From the Quartz story:

Inside, protected by stainless steel walls and a thicket of patents, there is a secret, proprietary viscera of pipes, storage vessels, heating instruments, robot arms and 250 or so sensors that together do everything a human barista would do if only she had something like perfect self-knowledge. “How is my milk steamer performing? Am I a half-degree off in my brewing temperature? Is my water pressure consistent? Is there any residue buildup on my brewing chamber that might require me to switch to a backup system?”

In terms of quality, the result is meant not to compete with Starbucks so much as with high-end “third-wave” coffee companies like Stumptown and Intelligentsia.

It’s too soon to tell whether the system is a hit. So far Briggo has just one machine in operation, on the University of Texas campus. The robot gets a healthy four stars out of five on Yelp, with reviews like “love my robot coffee!” and “the most delicious coffee I’ve had in a very long time.” But there are also complaints, like the one from the customer who had to wait 17 minutes for a cup of iced coffee or the one whose “iced” lemonade tea came out warm.

There’s the pitfall. Robots may be more reliable than humans, in the sense that they can work around the clock without a break and achieve levels of precision and consistency that no Starbucks employee can match. But when something goes wrong, robotic systems tend to be less resilient than those that include humans, because humans are far better at reacting to novel circumstances—not to mention soothing the feelings of unsatisfied customers.

Researchers are working on ways to allow machines to detect human emotions, but empathy is one of those human traits that is not easily automated. In general, as I’ve argued before, robots come across as clumsy and incompetent when asked to operate autonomously in human environments. That’s why the conventional wisdom is that robots are best used for work that is “dangerous, dull, and dirty, ”—work, in other words, that humans can’t or don’t want to do. The happy corollary to this is that no one complains about sewer robots or bomb-disposal robots stealing people’s jobs.

But robots can also excel in controlled environments, like factory production lines, by performing rote tasks with higher levels of precision and consistency than humans could ever achieve. It’s in these settings that they threaten to displace jobs that people might actually want. A prototypical example from the manufacturing world is the luxury electric-car company Tesla, whose automated assembly line is a thing of beauty and cranks out some of the world’s best-made cars. Even there, though, the robots can’t do it all: Tesla employs some 3,000 workers at its factory to complement, oversee, and retrain the machines.

Your typical Starbucks coffee shop is hardly a controlled environment. Making cappuccinos may be less than scintillating, but if you throw in the elements of the barista’s job (or a bartender’s, for that matter) that include chatting with customers and maintaining order, it doesn’t cry out for automation. In short, it’s safe to say that robots will not be running Starbucks coffee shops anytime soon.

That’s not to say, however, that the machines won’t make inroads in segments of the coffee business. The Briggo machine may never be able to replicate the full, sit-down, Central Perk experience, but then again that’s not what every Starbucks customer is looking for. Starbucks is so successful because it dominates the market for two types of customers: those who want a place to sit down and chat with friends or get some work done, and those who just want a quick, reliable caffeine jolt on their way to work. It’s the latter market that might ultimately be better-served by a Briggo, or something like it. And that’s a very, very big market.

Briggo is starting off by targeting coffee kiosks in places like airports, hospitals, and office cafeterias. But in the future it’s possible to imagine automated coffee stands or even robot-coffee drive-throughs dotting the urban and suburban landscape the way Starbucks does today. (Think about how ATMs have taken the place of full-service banks.) That would relegate full-service coffee shops to a much smaller niche, serving mainly sit-down customers. Unfortunately for them, it’s the grab-and-go crowd that helps subsidize their leisurely habits. Perhaps, then, the robots could ultimately displace Starbucks baristas after all, whether Starbucks likes it or not. And the more people obsess over the perfect cup of coffee, as opposed to a friendly coffee-shop ambience, the more likely it is to happen.