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A robotic cafe opens a conversation about the future of human employment

Mozart is a new barista in town. Whether you want a lavender latte, cream soda or strawberry lemonade, Mozart is ready to serve. Mozart also prepares a drink in less than 30 seconds, works continuously for 14 hours and never gets paid.

Mozart is a robot.

Yummy Future, the first robotic cafe on campus, recently opened on Green Street. The barista robot, Mozart, has a mechanical arm programmed to prepare drinks.

According to Guangzhe Cui, co-founder of Yummy Future, customer traffic has exceeded expectations.

“A lot of customers love the futuristic vibes,” Cui said.

Robert Brunner, associate dean of innovation and director of disruption, attributed the emergence of robotics companies to labor shortages for minimum wage jobs. Brunner said many companies are now seeing the opportunity to use automation to accommodate labor shortages.

“One of the beauties of automation is its (ability) to do the same thing over and over again,” Brunner said. “You don’t have to worry about them getting bored.”

Brunner said he expects Yummy Future’s robotic cafe system to work effectively in environments with a massive flow of customers such as airports and shopping malls.

Cui said they are also exploring potential markets in rural areas where traditional cafes are hard to reach due to management and recruitment challenges.

However, not everyone shares the enthusiasm for the growth of robots.

Mikayla King, a junior at LAS and a Starbucks barista, worries that robotic cafes are taking the jobs of human baristas.

“Companies say ‘oh, that’s faster, get rid of all the jobs,'” King said. “If people think a robot can do a job, there’s no opportunity for an actual human to do that job.”

King said she doesn’t believe robots can completely replace human employees.

“In the morning and in the evening, I have to check the temperatures, and I feel like a robot could do these things if it programmed it, but how does the robot know if the thermometer is broken?” said the king.

Brunner pointed out that although automation replaces simple, repetitive work, it creates more opportunities for skilled jobs. He gave an example from automotive manufacturing where automated production lines are improving precision while there is a growing demand for human employees to inspect work status.

According to Cui, Yummy Future uses human-machine cooperation. With the robot taking on the hardest work, Cui said, the staff, mostly former regular cafe baristas, now focus on overseeing the store and facilitating business.

“When we hire most of our baristas, they’re happier,” Cui said. “Because they don’t have to stand there for long periods of time, pulling espressos and cleaning this and that.”

Julie Muňoz-Najar, an assistant clinical professor of social work, said people have a romantic imagination about how technology serves humans — she called it the enslavement of robots. Despite the novelty, Muňoz-Najar said she still remains cautious about how society interacts with this new economic approach.

She referred to protests by Amazon workers last year against the workplace. While some people push back on robotic systems, Muňoz-Najar said Yummy Future might face a similar hurdle.

“People might come up to them and say, ‘What are you doing to make sure you’re still part of the community and not creating a bigger divide?’ Muňoz-Najar said.

Likewise, when asked if she would work for a robotic cafe, King shook her head.

“I don’t want to be around robots,” King said. “They are very scary.”

Cui said he understands people’s natural resistance to robots. He said the main responsibility of Yummy Future staff was to alleviate potential discomfort for customers by familiarizing them with the machine.

While the robotic cafe system doesn’t have much human interaction, Muňoz-Najar sees the transitional role of human employees to provide a different kind of care.

Cui mentioned that the engineering team added customization options based on staff feedback. Unlike baristas who recommend drinks to satisfy customer needs, Cui said it took years for the machine to reach the same level of humanized design.

“It’s hard to step out of the comfort zone, but we can’t stay in one place forever,” Cui said.

Muňoz-Najar stressed the importance of retraining employees in a technology-driven market. Along with barista techniques and customer service skills, she expects robot cafe staff to learn human-machine knowledge that prepares them to work alongside the robot.

Knowing that automation is coming, Brunner encourages students to think about the opportunities it will create.

“It can be scary because we’re creatures of habit,” Brunner said. “But life is about adapting and changing to the changing environment, and I think that’s just another example of what you know you have to learn.”

To provide insight, Bruner said students should ask questions about working with automated machines in future professional encounters.

“It allows you to bet on your future and say, ‘I want to learn these skills now when I’m here at the University of Illinois,'” Brunner said. “How can I work with automation instead of fearing it? How can I work with it? How can I take advantage of it? How can I position myself to be complementary or augmented in partnership with AI? »

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