By JUNG YOON KIM
SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — Are robot baristas the future of South Korea’s vibrant coffee culture?
Dal.komm Coffee thinks so. The company now has 45 robot-equipped outlets in shopping malls, company cafeterias, schools and an airport.
Coffee is just one of many industries that could be transformed by automated services in this tech-forward nation, a notion both exciting and worrisome as jobs become scarcer.
South Korean industries, including restaurants, convenience stores, supermarkets, banks and manufacturers, are relying increasingly on robots and other automation. But not without consequence: Many Koreans, especially the young, are struggling to find work.
At a Dal.komm Coffee shop in Seoul, a robot barista takes orders remotely through a mobile app or kiosk cashier and then brews fresh coffee.
Less than a minute later, the robot sends a 4-digit code the customer can use to open a pick-up box. The robot can handle up to 14 drinks at a time. Drinks not retrieved within 10 minutes are 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.”
South Korea’s minimum wage 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, workers who operate about 2,500 tower cranes staged a strike, protesting growing use of unmanned small tower cranes at construction sites. Labor unions also have protested use of automated check-out counters at Emart, South Korea’s biggest supermarket chain.
Officials also revised initial plans to completely automate all the nation’s tollgates after complaints over losing 6,700 jobs. Instead, the system will be partially automated and keep all its current toll collectors.
South Korea has been an early and enthusiastic adopter of automation, with 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.