Beer Futurology

Recently I’ve been researching the development of Artificial Intelligence (AI) and the impacts of AI on future employment. For example, it’s fair to estimate that AI-guided heavy goods vehicles will put almost all truck drivers in the Western world out of business in the next two decades. Those trucks are already in use in Nevada. The same can be said for taxi drivers – Uber have promised Tesla they will buy 500,000 self-driving cars if they can be produced by 2020.

If you think computers replacing humans is ludicrous, then ask yourself how often do you use self-service tills now compared to being served by a human at a supermarket? In many cases, the technology is already here, it’s only human legislation and demand that has yet to catch up.

So if you’re reading my blog you probably enjoy beer. Perhaps you even work in the beer industry or would like to. Now you’re wondering how safe is employment in the beer industry from the advances of AI?

This post isn’t an in-depth research paper, so don’t quit your job or give up your dreams yet; however, it is based on an Oxford study carried out in 2013 by Carl Frey and Michael Osborne. It’s an interesting study. The paper concludes that 47% of employment in the United States is at high risk of being computerised within the next two decades. (Their data sets were derived from the US so the study didn’t consider the UK, nevertheless the two nations aren’t radically different in an employment sense.)

However, if a 45 page academic paper isn’t the sort of thing you want to read on your lunch break then I highly recommend you skip to the appendix. In the appendix, Frey and Osborne rank 702 occupations by the potential of those occupations being computerised, with the lowest rank of 1 being the occupation that is most resilient to being replaced by a computer, and 702 being the most likely occupation to be replaced in the coming years. The ranking is informed by a statistical probability.

So 1 (0.0028) = safe and 702 (0.99) = dust off your CV fast. (In case you’re curious, at 702, Telemarketers have a trip to the JobCentre to look forward to in the near future thanks to a 0.99 probability of being outsourced to SkyNet; luckily they can always seek counselling from the Recreational Therapists who are sitting smugly at number 1 with a 0.0028 probability of being replaced.)

There are lots of jobs in the beer industry but let’s look at how some of the more common roles would fare against the machine revolution.

Draymen – The sturdy drayman has seen some changes in his time, with horse and cart being replaced by van and truck. At position 380 (0.69), he sits midway on the table in terms of occupation, but much higher in terms of actual probability. At least he’s more comfortable than either his fellow long-distance truck driver who ranks at 431 (0.79), or the soon-to-be-extinct taxi driver at 531 (0.89).

Of course, Frey and Osborne didn’t look specifically at draymen but at delivery drivers as a whole. While the vehicle element can be computerised the task of chucking casks around and pissing off landlords still needs a human touch. So, again, the drayman may survive while his transport undergoes another upgrade.

Eventually, advances in rack and dispense technology and sensory equipment could see a system where the delivery vehicle pulls up, opens the door and offloads the beer onto the pavement with a small robotic arm for the pub’s staff to then take inside. Without a human component, the truck could carry even more cargo without stopping to rest. All that stands between the drayman and the unemployment line could be the absence of bar staff…


Bar staff – At 422 (0.77), it’s not looking rosy for bartenders. You may think it a ridiculous sci-fi concept for the pub of tomorrow to be staffed by robot barmen, but like the supermarket checkout there may be a growing willingness from customers to accept an element of self-service, especially if it speeds up getting served in busy locations.

Consider BrewDog bars. They are entirely keg and bottle. With present-day engineering, a computerised system could be made to dispense keg pints or craft bottles. The customer can order via their smartphone or a tablet at the bar or even from their table; in time, a computerised personal craft beer assistant, (think Siri but beer – Beeri), could talk them through any beer with the knowledge of an expert beer sommelier. In fact, aside from the beer assistant, such a pub already exists in Swansea.

Moravec’s paradox ensures bar staff won’t disappear entirely. You’ve seen the paradox in action every day – computers excel at those tasks we find hard, such as computing pi to a thousand decimal places in less than a minute, but struggle at the things we find commonplace and easy, such as folding a towel. Even a robot designed for that very purpose can take 20 minutes to do it.

This means humans will outperform computers and robots at maintaining casks correctly or wiping away spillages for some time to come. Unfortunately for human bar staff, even pouring a pint of cask ale might be within the realms of present-day robotics. Consider this trailer for Baxter, a relatively cheap robot that is capable of mimicking human actions with basic training. That’s right, it doesn’t need to be programmed, so once a human shows Baxter how to pour a pint, away it goes. Of course, telling Baxter which pint to pour and when to stop dispensing pints of beer may be a problem, but not one that can’t be overcome in the next few years.

In terms of the future of the pub, we could find a significant mechanisation of ‘middle-tier’ pubs. At the high end of the market, discerning bars and pubs will deliberately retain knowledgeable human staff and pass on a premium to their customers for that human touch; at the low end, cheap boozers who can’t afford to modernise will retain what low-wage staff they can, selling cheap macro beer to the masses, while in the mid-tier the chains and pubcos will push forward the efficient, almost unstaffed and mostly automated pub. This will drive down one of their biggest costs, wages. It’s not impossible to imagine Wetherspoons replacing 75% of their bar staff in favour of tireless, efficient and unpaid automation.

So, like the checkouts at supermarkets, bar staff will gradually disappear to be replaced by automated systems, only stepping in when a human touch is needed. In time, there may be as few as one person per pub, that person being the venerable…

Pub Landlord – There’s no equivalent of pub landlord or even bar manager in the study. The closest fit is either Food Service Manager at 162 (0.083) or First-Line Supervisors of Food Preparation and Serving Workers at 349 (0.63). Regardless, knowing what we know about the role of the pub manager or landlord, that role is the one of the safest in the beer industry. Whatever the level of automation, he’s there to supervise the operation of the pub, maintain the cellar, resolve complaints about murky beer and bring cheer to the customers in good establishments, and invigilate them in rougher ones. Even if the pub could run itself entirely, police and local authorities would be uneasy with the idea of a drinking establishment that didn’t have a human in charge. Hail to the landlord!

Brewers – There’s no direct or even indirect correlation for brewer in the report. Part scientist, part engineer, part artist and part wizard, there’s no one quite like a brewer. Even so, many breweries already utilise an extensive scale of automation. In China, a factory that creates complex electronic components is almost fully automated. A team of human supervisors oversees the work but the factory has gone from 650 employees to 60. The same can be applied to a brewery.

So that’s the heavy lifting outsourced to Artificial Intelligence and robotics, but can an AI actually brew beer as well as a human? It’s easy to apply a human bias and say that we are simply more creative than machines, or that computers can’t understand taste.

However, through Artificial Neural Networks and evolutionary algorithms, there are programmes currently outperforming humans in certain fields of innovation. Specifically, computers are designing circuit boards that not only outperform human designs, but they do so in ways we wouldn’t have attempted. Nick Bostrum, an Oxford philosophy professor, highlights an astonishing example of this:

“Another search process, tasked with creating an oscillator, was deprived of a seemingly even more indispensable component, the capacitor. When the algorithm presented its successful solution, the researchers examined it and at first concluded “it should not work”. Upon more careful examination, they discovered that the algorithm had, MacGuyver-like, reconfigured its sensor-less motherboard into a makeshift radio receiver, using the printed circuit board tracks as an aerial to pick up nearby signals generated by personal computers that happened to be situated nearby in the laboratory. The circuit amplified this signal to produce the desired oscillating output”
– Superintelligence: Paths, Dangers, Strategies, p.154

So who’s to say an AI couldn’t out-craft a human? All the AI needs is the right inputs – a database of hops, malts, water and yeast profiles, and their corresponding flavour profiles. There’s already enough material in print and online to kickstart the AI’s brewing process.

So, the only truly safe role in the brewery of the future might be a human taster to confirm the beer is good. This ‘Master Brewer’ may only need to tap into the user interface instructions such as ‘hoppier’ or ‘ include raspberry notes’ or ‘reduce costs by 30%’. At long last, the marketing managers (who are disappointingly safe at 61, 0.014) may have complete run of the brewery (beancounters are heading for extinction though, ranked 584 with a 0.94 probability of being replaced). At the micro/small-brewery level, the potential for automation technology is already seeping in (see Kickstarter for countless examples). Even where advanced automation is well outside the available budget, a laptop-loaded AI programme could advise the Brewer on recipes and efficiencies.

In time, as AI encroaches into the brewing process, a new counter-culture could develop that favours human brewers. While I can’t tell you the definition of craft beer now, in our generation, I can tell you what the definition of craft beer will be for the next generation: it will be beer made entirely by human hand, free of Artificial Influence. That is the future of Craft Beer.

And finally, what of the beer writers and bloggers? Well, at 123 (0.038), they’re sitting happy. After all, someone has to review BrewNet’s latest beer.



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