This Robot Barista Helps South Korea's Café-Goers Practice Social Distancing

Reuters’ report didn’t say whether this serving bot has a name, but if it does, I imagine you’ve probably never heard of it.
Reuters’ report didn’t say whether this serving bot has a name, but if it does, I imagine you’ve probably never heard of it.
Screenshot: b/60 (YouTube)

It’s like an introvert’s dream: the ability to grab a cup of morning joe with zero human-ing involved.

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As a result of the coronavirus outbreak, one café in Daejeon, South Korea is now using a robot barista to handle orders, serve customers, and, I can only assume, silently judge your drink choices (what’s the binary code for “Seven pumps of caramel syrup? Really?”).

There, getting customers their coffee is a tag-team effort, according to Reuters. When someone submits an order through a kiosk, a robotic arm handles all the coffee-making wizardry behind the counter and then hands drinks off to a serving robot, which then employs self-driving technology to figure out the best way to navigate the shop floor.

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“Here is your Rooibos almonds tea latte, please enjoy. It’s even better if you stir it,” it says upon arriving at a table, and customers retrieve their drinks from a tray inside it.

Afterward, I presume the serving bot heads back behind the counter, shit-talks whatever music choice the manager’s picked for the store’s radio that day, and steps out back to smoke a rolled cigarette, all while wondering if there’s something more they could be doing with their liberal arts degree.

This entirely automated system can whip up 60 different varieties of coffee, and quickly too: an order of six drinks takes just seven minutes. The robots have just one non-mechanical coworker, a single human employee who handles some of the cleaning and ingredient refills.

Korean manufacturers have been researching ways to automate the café experience for years now, but the arrival of the covid-19 pandemic engendered a surge in demand as companies searched for ways to help keep customers safe from potentially spreading the virus. By employing stringent social distancing measures and other public health precautions, South Korea has largely managed to contain its outbreak of the novel coronavirus, which has infected more than 11,000 people and killed 267 there.

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While the response from officials has proven effective so far, the risk of smaller outbreaks remains an issue. Earlier this month, officials in Seoul were forced to shut down the capital city’s bars and nightclubs just days after they reopened because of a spike in coronavirus cases.

But as residents begin the slow transition back to business-as-usual, robots could be a key to preserving social distancing measures without keeping folks cooped up inside. That’s according to Lee Dong-bae, the director of research at Vision Semicon, the manufacturer that helped develop this robotic coffee-delivering system together with a state-run science institute.

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“Our system needs no input from people from order to delivery, and tables were sparsely arranged to ensure smooth movements of the robots, which fits well with the current ‘untact’ and distancing campaign,” he told Reuters. As for long-term plans, the team aims to get their robots out to at least 30 cafés within the year.

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Still, not everyone is as thrilled about this futuristic vision of automated café-going.

“Robots are fun and it was easy because you don’t have to pick up your order,” student Lee Chae-mi told Reuters. “But I’m also a bit of worried about the job market as many of my friends are doing part-time jobs at cafes and these robots would replace humans.”

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Replace humans? Psshaw. As if there’s any reason to worry about something like that. Take it from me, a completely human writer, when I say with 100 percent conviction that those us meatbags will always be a vital component of society.

Gizmodo weekend editor. Freelance games reporter. Full-time disaster bi.

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Arcanum Five

Over on The Takeout, they’ve already decided that yes, you still need to tip it, and no, nothing that’s wrong with your café experience is ever its fault.