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Tue 23 Apr 2024 World Coffee Portal

Rise of the Machines: Is AI Poised to Redefine the Barista Role?

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With hospitality operators increasingly embracing automation, artificial intelligence could be the next big evolution for customer-facing roles – but how will this impact staff and is AI the right approach for delivering a high-quality experience? asks Rastislav Rasty Kasár, Faema’s Brand Ambassador and 2023 WCIGS Champion

As the coffee industry undergoes rapid technological transformation and culture and technology become increasingly intertwined, the question looms: Is artificial intelligence (AI) poised to redefine the coffee experience and replace the skilled barista?

We live in an era when AI is increasingly being touted as a replacement for human decision-making in the brewing process. AI algorithms in espresso machines can automatically monitor flow to obtain optimum dosing. Meanwhile, AI-enabled robots such as Café Zinho deploy machine learning to optimise extraction and can even pour latte art.

While the fundamental design of the coffee machine remains unaltered, digital tools for precision, efficiency and connectivity have advanced significantly over the last few decades. Within this context, it becomes imperative to discern between ‘automation’ and ‘artificial intelligence’, with the latter capable of learning and adaptation with a significant degree of autonomy.

THE EVOLVING ROLE OF BARISTAS

In the burgeoning age of artificial intelligence, the role of the barista is undergoing a significant transformation, with the advent of AI heralding new efficiencies and possibilities – but also challenges.

The introduction of devices like the Marco SP-9 coffee brewer, which automates the process of making filtered coffee, exemplifies this shift. Innovations like these allow baristas to focus on other aspects of their role, such as customer service, while enhancing the overall quality and consistency of the coffee they serve.

“Technological integration does not diminish the value or complexity of a barista’s role”

However, the debate around the extent to which employees, especially in roles characterised by empathy and human connection, can be replaced by machines is polarising. Recognising AI as a proficient ‘server’ but potentially problematic as a ‘leader’, the hope is that AI will assist baristas where they face challenges, providing an extra set of hands to handle overwhelming situations while controlling staffing costs.

The use of AI-enhanced robotics in restaurants – such as the small-wheeled servers I once encountered at a restaurant in Taiwan that assist staff with orders and cleaning – exemplifies the potential for increased efficiency in busy venues.

Nevertheless, the focus should remain on AI improving the operational aspects of cafés, like waste management and goods procurement, without directly impacting guest experience.

CUSTOMER EXPERIENCE AND OPERATIONAL EFFICIENCY

Baristas are exposed to various stress factors that can adversely impact their mood and performance. Technology, in this context, is a highly beneficial tool to alleviate some of these challenges. Gravimetrics technology, for example, streamlines the espresso-making process, freeing up time for baristas to engage more with customers or refine other skills.

However, technological integration does not diminish the value or complexity of a barista’s role. In fact, as the industry evolves, baristas are finding it increasingly important to expand their skill sets beyond the basics of pulling shots and steaming milk. Delving into areas related to food and drinks, and bringing unique offerings to their role, can significantly enhance their value in a café setting.

This dynamic was recently demonstrated by 2023 UK Barista Champion and the founder of London’s Formative Coffee and 2023 UK Barista Champion, Ian Kissick. During an unprecedented stage performance, Kissick utilised tablets to generate interactive menus. At the end of the presentation, Ian disclosed that a significant portion of the information presented was generated with the help of the AI tool ChatGPT.

Despite encountering initial scepticism, Kissick defended his approach. The use of AI enabled Kissick to explore and structure his beverage service and sensory descriptions more effectively, enriching the customer experience with detailed AI-assisted information.

While the beverage was not based on what the AI produced, ChatGPT enabled Kissick to gather and filter information without having to manually filter vast amounts of data available on the internet. This novel approach not only streamlined the interaction through digital menus, but the innovative collaboration showcased the transformative impact of AI on creativity and experiences in the world of coffee competitions.

TECHNOLOGY MEETS HUMAN INTERACTION

As technology advances, a growing number of hospitality staff will fear being outperformed or replaced. However, it’s crucial to recognise that technology, while a proficient servant in terms of operational efficiency, may not necessarily be an ideal master in the realm of human interaction.

The unique value of a barista lies in an ability to create personal connections with customers, an aspect of service that technology is yet to replicate fully. The memorable experiences crafted by baristas, rooted in genuine care and human touch, often leave a lasting impact on customers. We often forget how coffee, food or drinks tasted but remember how the person serving made us feel.

THE FUTURE OF AI IN COFFEE SHOPS

It is undeniable that AI will continue to be adopted by the coffee industry to improve operational efficiency and perform time-consuming tasks. AI tools for stock control and procurement can already seamlessly integrate point-of-sale systems with inventory management. By autonomously assessing stock levels and sales data, these algorithmic systems can judiciously reorder supplies and relieve staff from the meticulous task of stock monitoring.

Despite these technological advancements, the quintessential coffee shop experience defined by human interaction, personalised service, and the craftsmanship of a skilled barista will likely elude the complete grasp of AI.

The question of whether AI is set to replace skilled baristas is nuanced. AI and technological advancements are undoubtedly transforming the café industry, but they do not signal the end of the barista profession. Instead, they present an opportunity for baristas to evolve by integrating new tools and technologies into their craft.

This balance will be crucial in determining the number and nature of cafés in the future, as they may become more exclusive and tailored, reflecting the unique blend of human expertise and technological advancement. In this dynamic landscape, the role of the barista will continue to evolve, highlighting the irreplaceable value of human connection in an increasingly automated world. 

This article was first published on World Coffee Portal. Read more coffee industry insights here:

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