Should Starbucks Replace Its Baristas With Robots?

What's to come?
Oct. 18 2013 11:38 AM

The Rise of the Coffee Machines

Should Starbucks replace its baristas with robots?

(Continued from Page 1)

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.

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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.

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