The robots are coming.

By Tim Nelson
January 31, 2020
Advertisement

Though we may not always give it much thought, the places that we eat and drink have become increasingly automated in recent times. For example, it’s now entirely possible to walk into a number of fast food joints without ever speaking to another human being. Based on a recent earnings call, an increasing number of Starbucks baristas will have to contend with some new, robotic coworkers in the months and years ahead. 

As reported by Yahoo Finance, Starbucks COO Rosalind Brewer told analysts this week that the company plans to put 4,000 new AI-enabled coffee machines in stores by the end of 2020. That should keep the coffee company on pace to put one in every single US and Canadian store by 2022. 

Starbucks’ AI-assisted coffee machine is called the Mastrena II. In layman’s terms, it’s essentially the hardware that runs Starbucks’ Deep Brew artificial intelligence software. Last year, Starbucks CEO Kevin Johnson said that Deep Brew “will increasingly power our personalization engine, optimize store labor allocations and drive inventory management in stores.”  

Deploying the Mastrena II will allow Starbucks to both collect a wealth of data and act on it. For example, sensors in the machine can track what it’s making (i.e. what Starbucks is selling) and also provide real-time information on what parts of the “hardware” need maintenance. The hope is that letting Starbucks act on this data in real time can streamline how they operate and cut operating costs. 

In terms of the experience for actual customers, the automation that the Mastrena II introduces will ideally help reduce wait times by handling (at least some of) the steps required to complete a drink order. By sending information to the machine, it sounds like it’d be possible for the Mastrena II to do things like pull espresso shots while a human handles everything else. 

Every advance in automation introduces fear that the robots are coming for our jobs, but it at least looks like the point of the Mastrena II is to make a barista’s life easier. A Reddit thread posted around the time some of the first Mastrena II’s were rolling out in 2018 suggests that it enables certain functionality (like pulling more than two ristrettos at once) that would previously have been impossible, essentially lightening their load. 

Of course, that’s not to say that Starbucks might be plotting further hardware and software advances that could phase out human interaction entirely, but baristas will still be part of the coffee shop experience at least for now. Maybe one day they’ll even introduce software that’ll automatically spell and pronounce your name correctly.