Rumination No. 34: Barista in Beta

These days, we constantly hear about the inexorable march of artificial intelligence, which is fuelling the Fourth Industrial Revolution and will make humans useless in most (if not all) jobs.

Accountants, lawyers, labourers, whatever… you’ve probably heard about how positions in a range of fields will meet this fate, regardless of the required education level and qualifications.

Well, we can now add the role of barista to that list… or can we?

Shortly before boarding a flight home from Melbourne’s Essendon Fields Airport, I felt like a coffee at the terminal. It’s a very small building, in contrast to the larger Tullamarine Airport, so there aren’t any coffee shops. Instead, there was this…

Automated coffee machines aren’t really anything new but this is no ordinary coffee machine… this is Jonnee Coffee: best barista coffee in town (according to the sign).

Jonnee is no coffee machine… he’s an AI barista.

Jonnee looked like he had plenty of options and wasn’t too expensive, so I thought that I would give his coffee a try. I soon found out that Jonnee is not the best barista in town. In fact, he is utterly incompetent.

I tapped my debit card, then selected a flat white. Jonnee then yelled at me (in a female, robotic voice) to tap again to confirm the payment. Subsequently, he sprang into action, making buzzing noises and dropping a paper coffee cup into the tray for my desired flat white.

Once he was finished, I pulled the coffee cup out and was surprised to discover that no milk had been added—it was only a shot of espresso coffee. I was confused as to why Jonnee had done this but then concluded that I had not pressed his milk button to complete the recipe. This seemed odd, considering that the icon on Jonnee’s flat white button showed white milk in the cup, but I thought that I should try to resolve this rather than just blame him straight away.

I requested another cup of hot milk only, intending to pour it into my half-finished Jonnee Coffee flat white. Jonnee charged me a lower fee for the milk by itself. Everything seemed to be going fine, until I heard the buzzing stop and I was left with nothing but an empty cup. The issue, so it seemed, was that Jonnee had no milk whatsoever and Jonnee had presented no warning that this was the case. I felt like John Cleese in Monty Python’s Cheese Shop Sketch, discovering that there was, in fact, no cheese at all.

At this point, I’d like to go back to the point about artificial intelligence taking over the world. Jonnee Coffee, supposedly the best barista in town, was unable to offer the basic ingredient of milk in my flat white, nor was he able to warn me of the milk shortage and replenish himself.

What else on Earth could possibly have achieved the difficult process of stocking, offering and blending milk in an ordered hot beverage? Oh, I know! A human.

In 2019, as we all get whipped up about a magical future of super-automated robots that will fulfil our every desire and render work human workers obsolete, remember this: computers today are not conscious or aware of anything. For all of their amazing computational abilities, they are in fact totally stupid and require humans for maintenance and programming.

I drank my coffee, but couldn’t help feel frustrated that the advertised best barista in town was a fraud, a total sham! Jonnee needs a paid human to fill his milk supply. Jonnee is an idiot.