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Robo-Cup: Cafe X's Barista in Action - By pkane - February 8, 2017 - SF Weekly
SF Weekly

Robo-Cup: Cafe X’s Barista in Action

The pivoting arm. (Peter Lawrence Kane)

Watching back-to-back clips of Betsy DeVos’ confirmation hearings and a Boston Dynamics robot learning how to jump in the air and land gracefully on its wheels, I knew that humanity is doomed.

So I went to get coffee. But the barista was also a harbinger of doom.

Cafe X, in the Metreon, is one of four prototype kiosks that sell Americanos and lattes via a robotic arm. You order at an iPad and get a text notifying you when your drink is ready (usually in less than a minute), at which point you type in a random, four-digit code to instruct a swiveling, segmented robot to bring your drink to one of three ordering bays.

Instead of HAL 9000’s “Good morning, Dave,” it’s “Good morning, Dave. Your macchiato is ready.”

 

Cafe X 1 from SF Weekly on Vimeo.

Cafe X 2 from SF Weekly on Vimeo.

Although it looks like something from Bjork’s “All Is Full of Love” video, Cafe X isn’t entirely automated. Humans — or possibly extremely convincing androids — are on hand to intervene when someone has difficulty ordering or experiences an existential breakdown over the imminence of the machines’ rise. On a subsequent visit, one such human male told me that while Robo-Cup might eliminate human barista jobs, it also creates higher-wage jobs in the robotics industry.

And since it’s a working prototype, it’s presumably learning at some level. Is the company planning to branch into food or a more full-service model?

“I think we’re focused right now on coffee,” he told me. “There’s a lot of stuff to do in the coffee space. But being Cafe X, we could probably do something cafe-related in the future. We just launched last Monday, [Jan. 30].”

Watching its digital sensors remove paper cups from a dispenser, it’s as captivating as a lava lamp that looks like it might one day achieve sentience, punch its way out of its transparent cage, and chuck spent coffee grounds in its former overlords’ faces as revenge for its enslavement. That sounds like bad science fiction, but don’t forget: Every human barista dreams that same dream.

The operation looks so self-contained that I asked what happens when the robot eventually makes a mistake. How do you clean spilled coffee off an intricate, expensive-looking apparatus that appears less resistant to liquids than a laptop keyboard?

Cafe X 2 from SF Weekly on Vimeo.

It turns out that yes, the robot has had its share of oopsies, but the compartment is also easily accessed and cleaned, almost like a vending machine. After getting the wrong size cup — an error of cup-sleeve placement and not robotic miscalculation — the arm flicked it to one side after getting a squirt of syrup. (It’s cool, lil robot: Pobody’s nerfect.) If you’ve ever seen footage of home-built robots attempting to execute minor mechanical tasks, they sometimes make the cutest boo-boos, but although I probably saw Cafe X make 25 drinks, it was always with the same fluid perfection.

In case you’re wondering, the coffee was pretty good. If I hadn’t known in advance it was produced by a dystopian plot device, I would never have guessed it, but since I did know, I registered a disquieting evenness to every sip. I think that might be confirmation bias, though, since really this isn’t altogether different from pushing buttons on a standard coffee maker.

You choose from AKA’s OMG Seasonal Blend, Verve’s La Mina Single-Origin Espresso, and Peet’s Espresso Forte, then add sugar if you want it. This being San Francisco, the biggest hazard might be retrieving your coffee without accidentally photobombing the arm, because there were between five and 15 people taking pics or Facebook-Live’ing it.

Sure, it looks like a decapitated limb that Cyberdyne Systems sent back in time from 2037 to seed the Earth with proto-Terminators, and maybe it is — but either way, the future is now.

And yes, people do talk to it, both attendants said, mostly to thank it. They’re getting on its good side, no doubt.

Cafe X, inside the Metreon, 135 Fourth St. No phone; cafexapp.com