Robot Makes Hong Kong Milk Tea

Hong Kong style milk tea (Getty Images/PamelaJoeMcFarlane)
Hong Kong style milk tea (Getty Images/PamelaJoeMcFarlane)

KamChAI isone signal of the take-off of Artificial Intelligence and robotics in the teaindustry. It is the first robot to be launched in Hong Kong, to make itscomplex and specialized milk tea. It competed against local and VIP milk teamasters in the annual KamCha – “Golden Cup” – competition in 2018. The contestaimed to test if a robot could match the concentration and skill of humans; inthe background is the broader question of can it replace them. The answer is:not yet.

HK-style milk tea is an adaptation of traditional British fare, using various blends of finely-ground black tea filtered through a cloth net that looks like a silk stocking. Rather than fresh milk, it is cooled with imported evaporated condensed milk. This switch evolved in the local cha chaang teng no-frills tea restaurants whose customers couldn’t afford fresh milk and to give it a strong, sweet and creamy taste. The tea must be constantly agitated and steeped up to seven times to balance the thick and strong canned evaporated milk. There are many claims of secret recipes and of it being an art that takes years to learn.

The robotweighs 300 kilograms. It includes many sensors that handle the brewing motions andmeasurement of ingredients. Capturing these in software provides two levels ofcapability: (1) rule-based application of the procedures for handling all thesteps, generally obtained by interviewing and observing experts, and (2)machine-learning neural nets that allow the robot to improve performancethrough the equivalent of trial-and-error learning, via “training” by masses ofexamples.

The competition version ofKamChAI is at the start of this AI learning; it seems very much rule-based. It didnot match the experts’ performance. For example, after making eightcups of tea, it poured too much into the last cup. “KamChAI is a little bitmessy, but it’s like watching a child learn.”

It did not equal the speed ofthe human expert, who makes 12-14 cups per minute versus KamChAI’s 9. It’s unclearhow and if machine learning is built into the robot’s current and futurecapabilities. Its developer recognizes that a key next step is to add facerecognition that will identify regular customers and automatically make theirindividual brew. The hand and arm movements and sensors need training throughexamples to be able to adjust to misplaced cups, spills, variations in leaf,etc. There are many misconceptions about what the “Intelligence” in AI reallyamounts to. For example, a typical neural model implementation may distinguishcoffee cups but not have even a tiny clue of that they are used for. KamChAI isat the low end of the I.

There is a secondary agenda inthe plans of TheHong Kong Productivity Council (HKPC) which has championed it to “help expeditereindustrialisation, encourage smart manufacturing and promote technologytransfer as steps to transforming Hong Kong into an international innovationcenter.” Hong Kong is short of skilled labor. In the service sector, estimatesare that there will be a shortage of 80,000 workers for 300,000 jobs. Articleson KamChAI highlight that it may be the only way to preserve the skilledtraditions and art of milk tea making.

As the machines and their software learn, they will evolveand even build new levels of expertise. Add mobility and they will begin tooffer table and street service. In Hong Kong’s scarce physical space, they willmeet a primary goal of HKPC: smaller and smaller stores with fewer and fewerstaff. They will add more and more personalized service; also in Hong Kongtoday, HUNG+ kiosks combine face recognition, access to customer food andbeverage purchase history and even current weather to make personalized snackand beverage recommendations.

AI is core to the future of labor-intensive industries and,yes, the job impacts will be far-reaching. So, too, will the serviceopportunities. And the management challenges are part of the package.

SOURCES: Hong Kong Productivity Council, HK Press