Author(s): Raghu Gopal
For those in search of important trends, robotics certainly makes the top ten. Disruption and opportunity are two sides of the same coin.
This week, a coffee start-up from Hong-Kong called Cafe X made its US debut at the AMC Metreon shopping centre in San Francisco. It's a cafe that eliminates much of the human element from ordering a cup of gourmet coffee. Cafe X believes that robots are the special ingredient to a great beverage, removing chance mistakes while providing quick service.
At Cafe X, customers place orders via a touchscreen device at the kiosk and robots take it from there, making and serving beverages. Cafe X has locations in Hong Kong and now in San Francisco with plans to expand to other locations in Silicon Valley. The start-up expects to be available in offices of local technology companies as an alternative to vending machines.
The robot barista, being called Gordon, can make one of seven different varieties of coffee allowing customers to choose from different beans. When the coffee is ready, the robot sends a message to the customer's phone with an order code. The robotic arm then presents the drink once the order code is entered at one of the three delivery bays set up in the cafe.
The privately backed company has raised $5 million in seed funding from investors including The Thiel Foundation, Social Capital, Khosla Ventures, Jason Calacanis and Felicis Ventures. The original concept was to cut down on the time customers spend waiting and to ensure consistency.
Cafe X isn't the first company to update the concept of the automat and experiment with robotic food preparation in Silicon Valley — Zume Pizza, from Mountain View, uses a series of robots to make its pies and the popular Eatsa in San Francisco uses mobile ordering and an automated in-house kiosk to prepare quinoa bowls.
We expect a sense of unease with such developments, but also a sense of inevitability. The long-term trend of automation didn't start with coffee or pizza, but now lower-cost robotics and advancements in artificial intelligence are expected to accelerate the pace of change.
For consumers, the user interface to complex industrial machines will be their smartphones, the most familiar tool. It's another propellant that makes handsets the remote controls of our lives. Gordon the robot barista is a relative novelty today but, provided there are enough consumers who accept this level of automation in cafes and restaurants, such smart machinery will soon become commonplace. A jolt of change is coming.