An Introduction to Our Robotic Future lies inconspicuously off Baldwin Street in Toronto’s busy Kensington Market.
The RC Coffee Robo Café, which juts out slightly from a sidewalk brick wall, bills itself as Canada’s first robotic café.
Unlike a vending machine that dispenses coffee from hand-filled jars, an automated coffee maker makes every cup of coffee, espresso, latte and more to order, ready in just moments.
For Jasmine Arnold, who was visiting Toronto from Providence, RI, the iced matcha made at RC Coffee topped the drinks dispensed by the vending machine and was on par with the coffee served in a chain.
While the drink was smooth, she told Global News the experience was unique if a little contradictory.
“I have mixed feelings about the robot, from a jobs perspective,” she said, expressing some disquiet about what this means for the prospects for the human coffee industry.
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After trying his robot-infused drink, Arnold’s partner, Eric, echoed her sentiments but noted that with the pandemic changing our expectations about what business can be done in terms of, it appears to be in line with recent shifts in business.
“I think that’s kind of the direction we’re heading as a society,” he said.
Workforce shifts driven by a tight labor market and the COVID-19 pandemic are opening the door to faster adoption of robotic solutions, but at least one expert warns that Canada may not be prepared for how quickly robotic workers are ready to transform the economy.
There is a demand for robots in tight labor markets
Statistics Canada said on Friday that although Canada shed 31,000 jobs in July, the country’s unemployment rate remained at an all-time low of 4.9 percent last month. The labor market is much hotter in the US, where unemployment fell to 3.5 percent in July.
The tight North American job market is fueling interest in automated solutions, says Brad Ford, vice president of sales at KioCafé in Canada, the company that operates RC Coffee.
The company only had one RC Coffee kiosk in Toronto in the fall of 2020, which it launched as an “experiment,” he recalls. But in the past two and a half years, it has expanded to five locations across the greater Toronto area with three more on the way.
Most of the storefront locations are in high-traffic neighborhoods, but there is also a stand-alone RC Coffee kiosk at Toronto General Hospital.
Hospitals, universities and airports were among the most interested customers at Kio Cafe, Ford says, as those locations were unable to staff their cafes quickly enough to absorb the surge in demand from recovering from the pandemic.
“People have been knocking on our door trying to buy equipment from us, especially in the United States, where they can’t pay employees to open sites,” he says.
Companies in other sectors are also increasingly embracing automation. Far from simply installing self-propelled systems, grocers like Loblaw and Sobeys are turning to robots to speed up the fulfillment process. The company announced plans in June to open an automated distribution center in GTA by early 2024.
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The Association for Advanced Automation said US workplace orders for robots rose 40 percent in the first quarter of 2022. That followed a record 2021 that saw a 28 percent jump in orders fueled by the non-automotive sectors.
The accelerating robotic future pandemic
Although it was “coincidental” that RC Coffee was offering a no-touch experience at the time the pandemic was progressing, Ford noted that this was also an upward trend on demand.
The pace of automation has only accelerated due to the COVID-19 pandemic, says Dan Ciuriak, senior fellow at the Center for International Governance Innovation in Waterloo, Ont.
He points to the 2020 Beijing Olympics (held in 2021), when China boosted the development of contactless services to reduce the chances of COVID transmission, as a sign of what can be expected to become post-pandemic realities.
“That’s exactly the world we’re moving into now.”
Looking at hospitals specifically, Ciuriak says there is an opportunity to automate work outside of just the dining hall.
Amid a widely reported shortage of healthcare staff, more than one in five Canadian nurses worked additional paid shifts in July, Statistics Canada said Friday. Meanwhile, about 11.2 percent of the nurses were sick for part of the week when the workforce survey was conducted.
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Ciuriak says there is an opportunity for increasingly intelligent robots to support or even replace some nursing jobs as Canada’s aging population threatens to overwhelm an already overburdened health system.
“This would be a great blessing and really enable us to get through this demographic transition,” he says.
That’s pretty much what futurists – including Ciuriak – have long predicted our robotic future would look like: robots that work alongside humans, simplifying simple tasks and making us more productive.
But he says advances in artificial intelligence are seeing more and more powerful chips accelerating the pace of automation. Every time a machine outperforms a human in a knowledge-based field, such as Google’s DeepMind AI chess game, Ciuriak says we should consider the implications for work we long assumed was just for humans.
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“You just see a massive increase in the power of these networks. It is reflected in the number of AI systems that break through human standards. This is a normal phenomenon now,” he says.
“We are at the dawn of a new era, and this will have huge implications for the job market.”
Service sector jobs at risk
The service sector in particular is rife with turmoil, Siuriak says, and it’s not just entry-level jobs at risk.
He argues, for example, that the skills a person might gain from years of investing and studying for a law degree can be largely replicated—and mass-produced—on a computer chip over the next decade.
When these services, which are usually constrained by human boundaries, are scaled up through automation, the implications for income generation and distribution will be enormous. He argues that the owners of these machines will become new centers of concentration of wealth, which calls for a shift in thinking about how to tax the products of this business.
“We are starting a new type of economy that we are not ready to regulate or manage,” says Siuriak.
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While he doesn’t think RC Coffee Robo cafes will replace the traditional barista or the collective feeling of the local coffee shop, Ford acknowledges that some “front-end” jobs may be at risk in our robotic future.
However, he argues, the machines themselves “create jobs”. Each coffee shop requires an extensive development and maintenance team behind them, and the machines themselves require the same material inputs as typical Starbucks or Tim Hortons.
By enabling more coffee shop locations to open today rather than closing due to staff shortages, Ford argues that Java producers are able to keep their business going and maintain employment throughout the coffee supply chain.
“Whenever we can put this stuff up and get great coffee out there, I think it’s great for everyone.”
– With files from The Canadian Press
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