Coffee and the synthetic imagination

robot making coffee with latte art AI from midjourney

Can the synthetic imagination of an AI image creation tool help us glimpse the future of coffee?

By Tony


June 14, 2022


Can the synthetic imagination of one of these newfangled artificial intelligence image creation tools help us glimpse the future of coffee?

Maybe…? The weird results I got attempting to find the answer are certainly too fun not to share. We got an invitation to send prompts to Midjourney, one of the more capable of the current crop of AIs spewing out those silly, grotesque, and sometimes breathtakingly beautiful images that are having a real moment right now.

This recent Vox video does a very good job explaining how these systems were invented and how shockingly fast they’ve advanced in their capabilities.

It’s really easy to get sucked into playing around, puzzling out what prompt or phrase might conjure the thing you’re imagining—or summon something far beyond it. My first forays into getting it to spit out coffee stuff suggest that a lot of the images it sees for “coffee” are informed by Nespresso and Starbucks. It’s concepts of “chemex” or “aeropress” are a bit fuzzy. What brew recipe would work best with these gizmos?

Midjourney AI image of coffee brewing devices artistically rendered

So I try to go with what it knows. How about Abe Lincoln working at Starbucks and serving us a Frappuccino? Or a “barista competition scene by Hieronymus Bosch”? Or “Juan Valdez in the multiverse of madness”?

abe Lincoln making a Frappuccino, Juan Valdez, Bosch barista competition

A hip coffee shop interior in Los Angeles with large windows, turtles as patrons, laptops, in the style of Studio Ghibli? I’d definitely hang out here.

AI of a turtle cafe in LA

How about a “Marvel comic about coffee superheroes with art by Bill Sienkiewicz”? I’m pretty impressed with these.

AI generated marvel comic about coffee

Clearly the illustration style of one my favorite comic artists lends itself well to the accidental grotesqueries of the AI. Here’s “a comic by Bill Sienkiewicz about Batman working at a Starbucks making coffee drinks”

AI generated image of batman making coffee

Let’s try “Thom York making coffee at a hip coffeebar by Sienkiewicz”. I’ve been in a coffeeshop while Thom patiently worked his way through the line to get his espresso—now the tables are turned. I bet he pours good latte art.

Radiohead's Thom York working as a barista

Without seeing the prompts that were used to generate them, these can all be a little Rorschach test-y, resembling feverish liminal dream glossolalia or the sort of visual spaghetti that psychedelic drugs throw on the back of your eyelids.

These “scenes from a modern coffeebar with a robot barista making coffee, art by Sienkiewicz” are evocative even if it’s not entirely clear what’s going on.

robots making coffee scenes

I am fond of this one—“robots harvesting coffee cherry from coffee trees on a farm by Sienkiewicz”.

robots harvesting coffee cherry

What does any of this tell us about the future of coffee? Will the art of making coffee succumb to the machines? Well we’re already seeing some shops move away from manual machines into automation. And the Cafe X robot cafe exists at SFO airport serving customers. But it seem likely that, as with driving or cooking, this will remain a deeply human activity despite what some visionary engineers or Silicon Valley investors might wish. We enjoy making our own coffee and we hope you do too. Creating works of art though…? We’ll let you be the judge.



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