Aug 17, 2019 | Updated: 07:24 AM EDT

Robot Baristas are Latest Front in South Korea Automation Push

Jun 11, 2019 02:01 PM EDT

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Dal.komm Coffee believes that robot baristas are the future of South Korea's coffee culture. They now have 45 robot-equipped outlets in company cafeterias, shopping malls, an airport and even in schools. Coffee is just one of the many industries that could be transformed by automated services in this tech-forward country, it is both exciting and worrisome because it could mean that jobs will be scarcer.

South Korean industries, including convenience stores, restaurants, banks, supermarkets and manufacturers are relying on robots and other automation. But the consequence of this innovation is that many Koreans, especially the young, are having a hard time finding work.

At a Dal.komm Coffee shop in Seoul, a robot barista takes orders remotely through a mobile application or through a kiosk cashier and then brews fresh coffee. Less than a minute later, the robot sends a 4-digit code that the customer can use to open a pick-up box. The robot can handle up to 14 drinks at a time. Drinks that are not retrieved within 10 minutes are automatically thrown away, but another drink can be ordered at no extra charge.

"It's really fun and convenient," said Choi Eun Jin, a 30-year-old office worker. "The area is crowded with office workers and local residents during lunchtime. So it's good to have a robot like this ... so you can get your coffee more easily."

The minimum wage in South Korea has jumped by 27.3 percent over the last two years, adding to the incentive to cut labor costs by using automation, says Suh Yong Gu, dean of the Business School at Sookmyung Women's University in Seoul.

On Tuesday, June 4, workers who operate about 2,500 tower cranes staged a strike, protesting the growing use of unmanned small tower cranes at construction sites. Labor unions also have protested the use of automated check-out counters at Emart, South Korea's biggest supermarket chain.

Officials also changed their initial plans of using automation in all of the country's tollgates after complaints of losing 6,700 jobs. Instead, they went for using automated systems partially and keeping all of their current toll collectors.

South Korea has been an early and enthusiastic adopter of automation, and they have the highest density of industrial robots in the world in 2017, at 710 robots per 10,000 manufacturing workers, according to the International Federation of Robotics.

Despite the consequence of the growing automation industry, experts say that younger people welcome the change.

"Currently, Millennials-those who were born after 1980-are prime consumers. This generation tends to not like meeting other people, so they favor ... technology that enables people to minimize face-to-face interactions with others," said Suh, the business school dean.

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