MWC 2019: Robots, robots and robots, oh my!

All the world loves robots, and when they are robots holding something a human might hold, doing an activity a human might do, and preferably doing it while looking a bit like a human (two legs, arms, a smiley cartoon face, etc) the world loves them even more.

And at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona last week, it felt like you couldn’t move without bumping into a robot doing something a human can do. There were dancing robots, drumming and piano-playing robots, packing robots and even a barista robot.

What’s 5G got to do with it?

The idea behind all these robotic demos is that the advent of 5G mobile networks in the not-too distant future will really kick-start the robotics revolution.

Operators promise 5G will bring vastly increased speeds, vastly reduced latency, and vastly improved possibilities around edge computing. This will create a perfect storm (if you’re a robot) for robots, because it enables them to accomplish more tasks, quicker, and with even greater precision than was already possible.

That’s the claim, anyway. The reality seems to be a little more clunky – let’s just say the dancing robot posed absolutely no threat to Anton du Beke, the packing robot made more mistakes than a tired Amazon warehouse worker who hasn’t been to the loo for eight hours, and the drumming robot … well … it might have been the best drummer in the Beatles.

Coffee to go

But one robot in particular caught the eyes of the thousands and thousands of Congress-goers feeling the strain the morning after an intense ‘networking’ session.

On the Korea Telecom (KT) stand at the GSMA’s Innovation City showcase, thirsty punters availed themselves of the services of dal:komm’s Beat, a 5G-enabled robotic barista.

Using a smartphone application, users place their order in advance, then watch as the robot swings into action, whirling around, grinding, pouring, frothing and icing. When your coffee is ready, you simply approach the booth, type in a unique pin, and Beat delivers your drink through a self-service hatch.

Backed by KT’s 5G base stations, Beat’s human controllers monitor the robot in as near to real-time as makes no difference, checking in to see if something needs repairing, or if the bean supply is running low.

Unlike human baristas, who generally do not connect themselves to networks, edge-based compute power means Beat can prepare three coffees at once, up to 90 per hour, and if left idle with nobody looking at it, it even becomes its own marketing department, waving its arm to attract attention and flashing happy emojis at passers-by. Beat that, underpaid service industry workers!

Humans under threat?

So do robots have a future in the high-stakes world of coffee preparation? I’m not so sure – for while my iced Americano was a much-needed treat on a busy afternoon, Beat completely forgot to write my name on the side of the cup in black marker pen, and that’s not easily forgivable. Baristas of the world, I think your jobs are safe for now.

This is Alice Scotts Town, reporting from Barcelona, for Computer Weekly…

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