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The Future Is Automated

The robot army takes on food service.

 

Editor’s Note: This is one of several stories about the future of our metropolis, which San Francisco is publishing over the next month as part of the April 2017 Urban Design Issue. To read stories as they become available online, click here.


Gordon is
the only barista employed at Cafe X, which opened in the Metreon in January. Henry Hu, Cafe X’s 23-year-old founder, claims that it’s the first robot-powered café in the country. It certainly won’t be the last. Here in the Bay Area, the Mountain View–based Zume Pizza employs a robot named Marta to spread sauce on its pies, while Eatsa, a largely automated quinoa bowl dispensary, has barely any visible human employees at its two San Francisco locations. And sometime in the near future, local startup Momentum Machines plans to open a robotic burger restaurant capable of belching out 400 patties an hour.

Much of the interest in restaurant automation has been fueled by the rising cost of human labor and the average customer’s increasing impatience over waiting in line. Hu himself got the idea for Cafe X while queuing for coffee; watching the baristas move cup after cup back and forth, he was struck by how repetitive their task was. So he promptly dropped out of college and moved to Hong Kong (he’s from Beijing) to pursue the idea. He and a partner worked on prototypes, with Hu touring car factories until he finally selected a Mitsubishi assembly-line robot arm. With a $100,000 Thiel Foundation grant and $5 million in Silicon Valley funding, he opened the first Cafe X in Hong Kong’s Science Park.

Since launching the Metreon outpost, Hu reports that he’s had “a lot of requests coming in” for locations around the world; currently, he’s in talks with some local tech companies to open kiosks on their campuses. He insists he’s not out to replace human jobs, but to enhance them; his sole human employee at Cafe X gets to “engage with customers” and do everything but make coffee.

It’s hard to shake the feeling that this is a little too facile—Cafe X’s standard staff of one human employee testifies to the unflattering reality that Hu is actually eliminating jobs. It’s also a little old-fashioned: Save for Gordon, Cafe X isn’t much different from a coffee vending machine, with a brief menu of espresso drinks and almost no customization. The future, it turns out, tastes a lot like the past.

 

Originally published in the April issue of San Francisco 

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