Confronting a smoothie-making robot youtube gas station karaoke


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 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?

“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.