This One Time, I Met A Coffee Robot

 
By 4 May 2012
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In which Sprudge.com co-founder Jordan Michelman encounters Briggo, the world’s most intelligent, social, and mildly terrifying coffee robot. You can meet Briggo for yourself by visiting the University of Texas Flawn Academic Center, and peruse his official website here.

To meet Briggo is to stare headlong at the future, and ask: “Are you serious? This is where we’re headed? What will become of all the superautomatic coffee shops, and the humans who work in them?” In the following paragraphs I’ll attempt to talk you through my visit to Briggo, my impressions on his coffee, his innards, and what he means for the future safety of humanity. But as an abstract, here’s what I think of Briggo: His coffee was drinkable, but I do NOT trust him, and I’m concerned that he may develop sentience and kill us all.

Billed as an “intelligent coffee kiosk”, or “robotic barista”, Briggo’s stated goal is coolly authoritative: “Perfecting and automating the barista craft.” He is roughly the size of an old-timey super computer, and is swaddled in beige, gray, and Bevo-orange paneling. Briggo’s innovative user interface allows for a whole host of integrated features, including virtual queue wait times, and the ability order drinks in person or by web or phone application from anywhere in the world. One can customize his or her daily coffee order, give it a wacky or inside jokey name, then share it all via various social media portals. Accounts are managed digitally; parents can buy drinks for their kids from New York, and people can gift each other beverages via their various Briggo accounts. With Briggo, the social aspect of the coffee shop has been replaced by social media.

Briggo is not an acronym, nor does it “mean anything” or have much of a back story beyond your average boring marketing bull session. I suggested to Briggo’s owner / handler, who looks remarkably like Steve Carrell, that Briggo ought to stand for “Barista Robotic Interface Grab & GO”. He was not terribly impressed by my suggestion, though I still think it’s kind of good.

Brew times are around 30 seconds for “just coffee”, and 2 minutes for drinks containing one of Briggo’s many syrup and sweetener options. The interface lets you choose your milk type and syrup, with small surcharges for each. The machine is stunningly consistent from user to user, pulling shots of Peru Cafe Femenino roasted by Austin’s Third Coast Roasters. Briggo’s guts are essentially a programmable digitally hardwired real-live espresso machine, and that’s about as much detail as I’m legally allowed to go into; there’s a real tamper, and a real steam wand, and a giant milk refrigerator with tubes coming out of it, but pictures were restricted behind the curtain.

Briggo’s exterior and crowd control is serviced constantly by one or more “attendants”, undergrads for whom babysitting Briggo is their part-time work study gig. These attendant’s chief duty is to hand each Briggo customer their drink personally, by pulling the paper cup (Briggo doesn’t do “for here”) out of Briggo’s finished product steel carousel. The young lady attendant I chatted with was a former Seattle’s Best Coffee barista, now attending UT as an advertising major with a minor in marketing. “My favorite part is that you get to name your drinks,” she tells me, and it’s true: Briggo’s interface does indeed allow for users to store their “favorite” concoctions by name in their accounts, and the name can be virtually anything. By way of demo, she orders me her namesake drink – the “Meow-Meow”, some sort of chocolate syrup and Splenda mocha – which Briggo dutifully poops out about 2 minutes after she punches the order in on her phone. My name is displayed on Briggo’s info-screen:

Along with the “Meow-Meow”, I had a chance to try some espressos, a couple other mocha-type things, and several lattes. Briggo does not do a macchiato (yet), but he does now make caffeine-free milk steamers and fresh-squeezed lemonade, and he’s been newly programmed to produce a variety of iced drinks. We work real hard on Sprudge not to make a lot of flavor value judgments, but it seems warranted here: Everything I and my group tried from Briggo was actually just fine, even the espresso, though it certainly suffered from being served at the bottom of an 8oz paper cup. I do not personally care for Splenda mochas, and you might not either, but I bet you they sell like gangbusters. The whole thing sort of feels like you’re at EPCOT Center, but you’re not, you’re in some computer lab on the UT campus, mere blocks from the Bevo shrine, and there are teenagers all around you slugging down Briggo drinks.

A couple more things about Briggo, from my notes:

“Convenience is worshiped as monotheistic deity.”

“Everything is really recyclable and waste-conscious.”

“Briggo is soulless, and delicious, and has Facebook, and may not be able to be stopped.”

The question I walked away asking was: Is this technology designed to kill Starbucks, or the Caffe Medici location back across Guadalupe Street? Or both? Briggo’s minions told me that once Briggo shrinks down from his current (disturbingly large) prototype model size to something that could fit in a small closet or kiosk, it won’t be long before we start seeing Briggo on other college campuses, or in enormous office parks, or embedded in hospital commissaries. What’s next, cruise ships? $7.5 million dollar SoHo condos?

And who knows what else Briggo’s innards could be stocked with: Single cigarettes and Italian roast in Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood; Tim Tams and a babyccino option next to the big ANZ Bank ATM on Bourke Street in Melbourne; or a single origin shot of espresso out of an old payphone in the Mission District, with rotating coffees, constantly changing variables, and adjustments in relation to outdoor San Francisco’s fluctuating barometrics.

Should you be scared for your job? What’s next, “Bloggo”, the coffee-blogging digital autobot? Bloggo would be an erudite know-it-all, content to create knowledge without first learning from others, the worst sort of authoritative overly-opinionated journalist software that only eats in the finest restaurants and snoots down its nose at most North American roast profiles. Should we be scared for our jobs too?

Do Briggo’s handlers plan on eventually arming Briggo with the internals necessary to gain sentience, self-teach, and destroy the human race in self-defense?

Only time will tell.

 
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