“Humans can be unpredictable; let the robot make your coffee” is the slogan of the Botbar coffee shop chain, which opened its first store in New York on June 10 in the trendy neighborhood of Greenpoint, at 666 Manhattan Avenue, a number that for the more esoteric could portend the dawn of a dystopia where dehumanization prevails. But for the bar’s founder, Denise Chung, the robots are here to help us and contribute to improving the quality of life for both baristas and customers. “I will still have some employees who will have to fill the machines with coffee beans and greet the customers. The mechanical part will be taken care of by the robot.” The Botbar has several tables and three machines where customers can place their order on a touch screen. Adam, a robot, is in charge of preparing their coffee (he can rustle up 50 per hour). “It’s an improvement for the community; instead of being served by a waiter who is tired of making 500 coffees a day, they will have a robot that ensures the coffee is made quickly and perfectly,” Chung adds.
Chung’s arguments are nothing new. According to María José de Abreu, a professor of anthropology at Columbia University, technological progress has always generated deep anxieties, “not only because of the idea of machines replacing humans, but also, on a more metaphysical level, because of the myth of perfection associated with the machine, which would equate it with a kind of god, or even a beast.” But according to a recent study by economists at Deutsche Bank Research, in the long run, AI will create more jobs than it will destroy. Furthermore, according to the thinking of American historian Louis Hyman, automation is not leading us toward the end of work, but toward “the end of boring work.” In an article in The New York Times, Hyman emphasizes: “Everyday automation says the opposite: that the way to be more productive and earn more money is to use our technology to become more human.”
This example is not unique. In California, the birthplace of Silicon Valley, similar initiatives have already been launched, such as Artly the Barista Bot (which also has outlets in Seattle and Portland), the creation of a start-up that has already raised around $10 million. Also noteworthy are Monty Cafe, which has franchises in six Russian cities and Dubai, and Tokyo’s Henn Na Cafe, where a robot named Sawyer has been serving coffees since 2018 and interrogating customers with the question: “Would you like a delicious coffee? I can make you a better one than the humans around here.” Adam, the Botbar barista, brings new elements to the counter. He has two long articulated arms — not just an automated arm — looks like R2-D2 from Star Wars, and waves and dances to entertain customers. The songs vary, but currently the Village People classic Y.M.C.A. is programmed.
However, in the view of Ethiraj Gabriel Dattatreyan, a professor of anthropology at New York University, the Botbar is problematic. “It takes advantage of the opportunity for dehumanized, frictionless work.” There is no need to tip, the robot can be insulted without consequence, and the employer saves the cost of a salary. “Automation relieves owners of responsibility toward the classes that depend on wage labor to exist within our economic system,” Dattatreyan notes. And with the beginning of the demise of the human bartender, the idea of the bar or coffee shop as a social redoubt also comes into question.
Quiet please, millennials at work
In recent years, the growth of immaculately designed franchises has been replacing traditional establishments. The rise of freelancers and remote work is contributing to bars and coffee shops becoming workplaces where a conversation can disturb those doing their jobs. This is already happening in the U.S. No more jokes, no more smiles, no more personalized recommendations, no more gossip. In this context of alienation, the figure of a robot waiter makes sense by contributing to efficiency and productivity.
“Equanimity exercised by entrepreneurs endowed with moral qualities is the key. Progress has to be integral; it belongs not only to the techno-scientific field, but also to morality,” says José Luis Mora García, professor emeritus of history of thought at the Autonomous University of Madrid, who considers robots useful in 24-hour premises as long as their use does not impose an infernal logic of consumerism in order to make the apparatus economically profitable. “If [Spanish scholar and humanist] Luis Vives appealed to judges as interpreters of the laws, let us appeal to the equanimity of those who have the technology so that robots occupy very limited spaces in our bars, when there is no other choice.”
Bars and cafeterias have traditionally been meeting places; to watch a game, to meet friends, for dates, political debates, and cultural presentations. But people also go to these places on their own, to sit at the bar and chat with the bartender and other customers. They are spaces for socializing. According to psychologist Susan Pinker, the secret of longevity lies precisely in our social lives. And bartenders play a fundamental role in creating that feeling of comfort: according to a study conducted by Sondea for Coca-Cola, for example, 30% of Spaniards would leave the keys to their home with the bartender at their favorite haunt.
According to Spain’s National Institute of Statistics, no country in the world has more bars per inhabitant. In 2020, a campaign was launched for the Spanish hospitality industry to be put forward as a candidate to be declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site. “Pouring a good beer is an art” and “The tradition of preparing a coffee is more than 350 years old” were among the arguments put forward in the candidacy. What happens if tradition and art become mechanized and controlled processes?
José Antonio González Alcantud, a professor of social anthropology at the University of Granada, points out the atmosphere surrounding a bar promotes sociability. “Thanks to drunkenness and food, modified states of consciousness are produced that facilitate enlightenment and free speech from its subjections. The French Revolution began in taverns. All its poets, from Baudelaire to Verlaine, or writers, from Balzac to Sartre, had their favorite taverns. In Spain or Italy, it won’t fly. Robots serving people? It’s not implausible, but it’s not going to succeed,” he says. “And if it does, we will be on the definitive road to dystopia, a sordid environment. Even so, we would have to humanize the robots and give them liturgical functions. We would anthropomorphize them, giving them nicknames and joking with them. The bar will remain the last trench of humanity.”
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