Confronting a smoothie-making robot

Face to face with a robot that could destroy millions of jobs, I pondered: Be this angelbot or devilbot?

By Nicole Karlis

Senior Writer

Published May 20, 2018 10:00AM (EDT)

 (Melissa Holman/Getty)
(Melissa Holman/Getty)

The vision of the future changes from decade to decade, but some predictions have remained static for generations. Case in point: robots. Early 20th-century writers like L. Frank Baum and Ambrose Bierce predicted their rise, and they are still seen as an inevitable part of the future.

So when I received an invitation to view “the world’s first fully autonomous robotic [smoothie] station,” I cleared my schedule. I wanted to see — and taste — the future. The company was called "6d Bytes," and their robo-barista, called Blendid, "requires no staff and can be accessible 24 hours a day, making it perfect for busy cafeterias, supermarkets, gyms, airports, stadiums and offices,” as the invite explained. I was intrigued.

Blendid’s home base was in Sunnyvale, California, at the famous startup accelerator called Plug and Play Tech Center. Plug and Play is a staple of early startup culture; the logo’s colorful letters and Comic Sans-esque font hint at its origins in a different, slightly more naïve era of digital design.

The robot only operated during lunch hours, which gave me time to acquaint myself with the CEO, Vipin Jain. We went into one of Plug and Play's robot-free conference rooms to talk. Jain's creation story behind Blendid followed the familiar idealistic narrative common to tech entrepreneurs: Entrepreneur X has a discussion with Entrepreneur Y about how difficult it is to do Z, and out of it, a world-changing idea is born. Jain had previously headed up two startups, and thought he was out of the game — but such is life when eureka moments strike.

“[My cofounder] mentioned, ‘What I really want to do is to digitize recipes,” he explained.

Yet in order to digitize food, one needs a robot to do the work — like a Star Trek replicator, he explained, but with arms.

“Once you teach this replicator how to make a specific thing in a specific way for you, every single time for you, that would be revolutionary,” he said. “Consumers could get not only food, but food the way they like it, to their taste, to their energies, to their perfection. You can have the food made that way any time of the day, anywhere you are.”

Jain and his cofounder decided it was indeed a “crazy enough” idea to pursue, and together, they bought a couple robots.

There was a certain earnestness in the way Jain described the story behind Blendid that made me want to share that happiness with him. The way he smiled as he spoke about robots making food better than a human ever could. How he excitedly explained how a robot’s arm, just like a human’s, has many joints, making the endeavor to replicate it even more complicated. There was also a part of me that felt a little like I was dancing with the devil.

“You have to program the robotic arm to operate in the six-dimensional space and go from point A to point A using a specific motion and specific linear or rotational motion to operate,” he said.

When I asked him why smoothies — which he insisted I call “blends” — he responded thoughtfully and convincingly. First, Jain said the company wanted to pick a trendy concept — one validated by industry trends, and that could still promise growth. According to an IBISWorld industry report, the Juice and Smoothie Bars industry has grown steadily over the last five years, and generates $2 billion annually.

Jain's second reason had to do with the kind of technological challenge it posed.

“From a technological perspective, it is fairly challenging because you are dealing with different types of ingredients,” he explained. “You’re dealing with solids, and solids can come in different shapes and sizes.”

To have the capability to dispense these solids precisely, based on the recipe, is formidable in the robot world, he said.

“There is nothing in the market, there is no product in the market that can dispense different size, different kinds of solids precisely,” he added.

Indeed, there is nothing quite like Blendid in the market — however, there are similar concepts. In San Francisco, robotic coffee bars called Cafe X have popped up in two locations. They, too, have a robot arm that moves a cup about, filling it with milk, coffee or hot chocolate to the customer's specs. To Jain’s point, these robots are only tasked to handle liquids, serving coffee drinks and tea. His, he says, is more advanced.

Blends could be a gateway to other solid foods, but that kind of thinking is getting too far ahead. His mission is to sell the $70,000 blend-making machine to commercial environments, such as colleges, malls, or hospitals.

“Locations where people go and expect food,” he explained.

My impending encounter with Blendid reminded me of a story my Baby Boomer mom used to tell me when cell phones became a household item. It was in the early 1980s, my mom said, and her sister was working at Hitachi. My mother’s landline rang, and my aunt was on the other line, and said “You won’t believe where I’m calling you from.” She was calling from her car, my mom explained. She mimed holding an old brick-size cell phone next to her ear.

I wondered if this would be my Hitachi moment.

When it was time to meet the Blendid, I felt like my childhood self heading off to Six Flags. Blendid stood about four feet tall, and consisted of a hook-like "hand" atop a series of robot joints. It was in a small semicircular booth, protected by plexiglass, and surrounded by cylindrical dispensers of ingredients and buzzing blenders. There was a small hole in the plexiglass where Blendid could push the completed smoothie — er, blend — towards its buyer.

Blendid was twisting and turning around behind its counter. It was busy. The machine can make over 40 blends in one hour. In under two minutes, an order can be made, paid and served.

Blendid did not have a face or any human-like features. When I asked if Blendid had a name, Jain said no. He said they did not want to personify the machine because it is a robot, not a human. I felt strangely comforted by that. Blendid was far removed from the uncanny valley.

What did seem worrisome, however, was the economic impact an army of Blendids could have, if they were to start replacing humans en masse. I asked Jain about this. What about future teenagers who need their first mall jobs? What about the struggling actors in Los Angeles who need just enough to get by? What about those would want to break into the food industry? What about the story about the great chef who got her start by making smoothies?

“Some jobs are going to be replaced, but broadly speaking, if you think about our country, we don’t have an employment problem,” he said. “[The] problem we have is we don’t have enough high-paying jobs.”

He added that “minimum wage is not going to address the issue we have in our country,” which is what most people in food service jobs are paid. According to Glassdoor, the national average for a smoothie maker position is $17,540 a year.

“Hiring, training and retaining people is extremely hard in the food service business,” he added. “Hopefully, if you make a concerted effort and encourage innovation, we will create enough high-paying jobs by replacing more low-paying jobs or automating more mundane tasks, but create enough high-paying jobs.”

The notion that artificial intelligence and automation will create new jobs, instead of taking them away, has been widely discussed — mainly by those who stand to benefit from the new regime. Truthfully, we do not have definitive answers yet. It remains to be seen what automation's impact will be — and it is not just food service jobs that are likely to be automated.

In December 2017, L. Rafael Reif, the president of Massachusetts Institute of Technology, wrote an article for the World Economic Forum's Annual Meeting that included a graph with predictions of jobs that have high probabilities of becoming automated. Loan officers, receptionists, paralegals, taxi drivers, security guards and cooks all have a probability over 50 percent.

While America has gone through industrial revolutions before, over the last 60 years only one job has been completely lost due to automation: elevator operators. (The key word here is "completely"; other job titles may have been partially, but not fully, lost to automation.) That is apt to change over the next several decades.

“Simply understanding the problem is a challenge,” Reif wrote. “Experts still disagree on exactly which groups and regions are losing jobs primarily to automation, how quickly such impacts will spread and what interventions might help.”

Darrell West, the author of “The Future of Work” and the vice president and director of Governance Studies at the Brookings Institution, told me that with robotic automation, it is no longer a question of "if" — it's already here.

“It is the wave of the future because machines can make more consistent products than humans,” West told Salon. “They don’t need vacations, they don’t get sick, and you can run them around the clock.”

West said in order for society to cope with the changes, the social structure of society needs to change.

“What we have to do is renegotiate the social contract to provide income and benefits to those who will be left behind,” he said. “There will be people who are unemployed and those who are underemployed.”

And if we don’t?

“The risk is we end up with a significant portion of people outside the workforce in the U.S. and the U.S. will look like Syria or Iraq,” he said. “There are benefits of work: it provides us with a sense of purpose, gives people an income, and it occupies them for socially beneficial purposes.”

While Jain and and his dream could easily be painted as the villain in this story, I had to admit that his path epitomizes our idea of the American Dream. Food-bots could reshape our everyday lives. Isn’t that how you succeed in America? When I asked him what he thought his biggest challenge be, he said societal acceptance.

Back in Sunnyvale, Blendid made me four seriously tasty blends. I tried a “Modern Lassi,” which had a lingering sweet agave flavor. Then there was the “Mango Mint” — a little more savory, albeit still refreshing. I guzzled the “Undercover Spinach,” as it had a kick of ginger. However, nothing quite lived up to the “Blueberry Cacao,” which I wanted to take tubs of back home with me. The experience matched the tastes of the blends too, as I had never been so entertained while waiting for a smoothie before. I was so fixated on Blendid’s every move, it was hard to get bored.

Yet my awe was interrupted when Blendid showed its fallibility. While pouring one of the green blends, Blendid misplaced the cup on the counter, and continued to pour from the blender. The green smoothie spilled all over the counter. Since Blendid sits behind plexiglass, protected from its customers, a putter-like stick had to be used to reposition the cup. I found Blendid’s faux pas kind of charming. Robots are flawed too. Nobody likes a perfect character.

Later that day I went to a “normal” café, one where a human makes you a drink. Maybe it was being accustomed to this service experience, but the experience felt far less exciting. The human barista moved behind the bar awkwardly and in a clunky manner. I could sense he was stressed about making a latte and taking a customer’s order at the same time. I felt more compelled to have a casual chat with him, knowing that in five years, or maybe even sooner, he might be replaced by a Blendid doppelgänger. In that moment, I realized that despite my fear of robots replacing service jobs, I am just as susceptible to getting caught up in the excitement.

And yet, it seems difficult to accept the idea that a robot can fully replicate service jobs. That’s because service jobs are not merely humans doing repetitive, robot-like tasks; "service labor" implies an emotional component, too. The bartender who cuts you off when you've had one too many and calls you a cab. The barista who sets you up with another regular. The bookseller who can share a good novel with you. Robots will never be able to recreate those experiences and moments that we share with service workers. As we automate jobs, we lose the human relationship, and in its place offer anomie-ridden robots.

It is only human to be excited and scared at the same time. Any Buddhist will tell you those polarizing emotions are always packaged together. Yet I think it is what you do with that fear and excitement that matters. This new industrial revolution is happening; policymakers will be faced with key decisions in the next couple decades on how to include these artificial intelligence creatures in our society — and so will we. What we cannot forget, though, is that these intelligent beings are our creations. We are not powerless to them.

By Nicole Karlis

Nicole Karlis is a senior writer at Salon. Tweet her @nicolekarlis.

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Automation Basic Income Blendid Innovation Job Loss Plug And Play Tech Center Silicon Valley Technology