The Morning Coffee Grind

After a day-long flight – red-eyed and sleep deprived – from Chicago O’Hare, I finally arrived in the robot city: a modern cityscape complemented by lush hills. I am here because of Suroboyo, its culture, and its famous robot-harvested coffee. Robert Jones of The Atlantic said that living in Suroboyo was “like living with the Jetsons.” When presented with the opportunity to come here, my inner coffee and tech junkie could not say no.

My friend Sumi, whom I have met during my trip to Jakarta years ago, picked me up from the airport and led me to a driverless car.

“We no longer have drivers here in Suroboyo,” Sumi said. “It’s the new age. Everything here is now algorithm-driven.”

The last time I went to Indonesia was twelve years ago. Then, Suroboyo was a rural annex to Jakarta: coffee shrubs, straw huts, and traditional farmers. Sumi – and most Suroboyo residents, really – lived in Jakarta, which was a train ride away. She studied economics at the University of Indonesia and sold fried tofu on the side for pocket money. When offered the opportunity to work in Suroboyo upon graduation, Sumi simply could not refuse.

As the coffee culture craze reached China’s millennials, the government wanted access to their own coffee beans to produce cheap, quality coffee publicly. What better way to do so than to set foot in Indonesia – a less-economically developed country with 267 million people, low minimum wages, and the most fertile soil in the world? “It was a new life for me and other Indonesians,” Sumi said. “China wanted to experiment with their best talent and technology. Their investment in Indonesia is a win-win because Indonesia is rich of natural resources and needed a large economic boost.”

Sumi works as a secretary at PT Kopi Kita, the Suroboyo-based company that makes up Indonesia’s coffee monopoly. About seven years ago, President Jokowi lent 120 square kilometers of land in East Java to Xi Jinping with 73% interest. Along with Beijing University-educated scientists and engineers, thousands of robots arrived. Alas, PT Kopi Kita was born. Today, the public company has brought significant profits to both China and Indonesia.

The car drove us into the horizon that splits the plantation from the sky. Coffee shrubs dominate the charter city. Throughout my trip in Suroboyo, I stayed at Sumi’s apartment. The autonomous car dropped us off and parked itself in the basement. Her humble home reflected Suroboyo’s friendly, welcoming culture, familiar to that of Indonesia’s.

“Crossing the border between Jakarta and Suroboyo changes everything,” Sumi said. “I feel that Suroboyo’s culture is more liberal compared to Jakarta. One thing that really bothers me is that Harrison Low [mayor of Suroboyo] bans us Muslim women from wearing hijabs in public. He says it’s to ‘preserve religious autonomy.’ I honestly don’t know how I feel about it.”

Low was appointed by Xi Jinping to chair PT Kopi Kita and manage the charter city. Although Low must still abide to Indonesia’s constitution, Xi does not want Suroboyo to have a dominant religion; like any good Chinese citizen, Low obeys.

Everything in Suroboyo revolves around coffee and artificial intelligence (AI). All the buildings in the city are specific to PT Kopi Kita and companies that support it: there is the PT Kopi Kita corporate headquarters, a laboratory that houses all the robots and autonomous cars, a Kompas office, an Alibaba-operated Hema convenience store, and apartments for the PT Kopi Kita employees. Sumi told me that China owns all the property, roads, and robots here. Besides giving some low-paying office jobs to the locals and giving about 40% of their profits to Indonesia, China is a major benefactor of Suroboyo.

Five years ago, during the first harvest, Low was adamant in harvesting coffee with just AI. The robots picked and processed twice as many coffee beans as Low and the company had anticipated. PT Kopi Kita marketed the coffee as ‘the first good quality coffee to be processed by robots.’ Everyone rushed to buy the new and hip coffee. However, PT Kopi Kita received complaints from about 40% of consumers who were disappointed by the coffee’s tangy, burnt, and extremely bitter taste. Upon further research, scientists found that the horrid taste was because the robots have processed and sold unripe coffee cherries.

I did my own research about coffee harvest before my trip. The National Coffee Association describes it as a very delicate process. Some coffee shrubs can have both ripe and unripe cherries. While processing the coffee beans can be done by machine, recognizing and picking and ripe coffee cherries requires a conscious mind that can make rational decisions. Traditional coffee farmers are experts because of years of experience. Basically, in spite of Low’s enthusiasm and overconfidence, robots are not the way to go to harvest coffee.

Although many – almost all, actually – local Indonesian farmers were laid off during the last harvest, foreign investments on China’s AI were able to sustain Suroboyo’s economy. Low’s choice to lay off all the traditional farmers five years ago bore a lot of adverse consequences today: besides angry workers, he created frequent power outages, waste, and an illusion that AI was the best alternative to human farmers.

Sumi told me that the days leading up to the first harvest were very draining on the Suroboyo’s energy supply. Since Suroboyo was rural until about two years leading up to the first harvest, the robots absorbed almost  the city’s electricity. Blackouts used to occur biweekly for hours at a time. Despite public outrage, Low prioritized coffee production and did nothing to solve the problem. People like Sumi also grew terrified of Low and didn’t want to speak up.

“It’s kind of scary how volatile our careers are,” Sumi said. “Our jobs are so dependent on China’s investments. I just feel like Low has way too much power over us, even though we all know that he has good intentions. He only does what Xi Jinping wants him to do and just doesn’t listen to any of us.”

The next day, Sumi and I rode the driverless car yet again to PT Kopi Kita’s headquarters. Behind the headquarters lies the infamous robot-controlled coffee plantation that spans for millions of miles. The coffee is planted on a slanted hill, shrubs well-tended by a first class irrigation system and infamous robots.

China sent a couple thousand robots to Suroboyo to test out a large-scale robot-driven plantation. Xi believes that despite high manufacturing costs, these robot farmers will generate more profit compared to human labor. At the headquarters, I met with Tish Jensen, the lead engineer of PT Kopi Kita. She took me to the lab where all the robots were. They were tall titanium rectangles with claws for hands and wheels for feet. Tish said that the robots resembled humans enough that the company decided to give them names.

“This one’s Hua,” she said, patting one robot’s head. “He checks the water content on the shrubs to make sure that the coffee plants get enough water.”

“How can you tell them apart?” I ask. They all looked identical.

Tish turned Hua around and showed me a code on its back. “Every robot has its own unique serial number. We memorize them like you would with a human name, and then put our own Chinese spinoff to it. Since this one’s serial number ends in ‘HV4,’ we call him Hua. It means flower, if you didn’t know.”

I smiled and nodded in response to seem courteous. It’s so ironic how China strives to make their robots more human without recognizing that their experiments are not doing justice by the rising unemployment rates in Indonesia.

Tish then opened up this huge warehouse-like storage space to showcase all the new robots. Apparently, Suroboyo just received a huge shipment from the AI lab in China. China’s goal is to create robots that can work the low-paying jobs – farming, fishing, cleaning – and eventually become recognized as a real human: just like Sophia the cyborg who became a naturalized Saudi Arabian citizen in 2017.

What China wants to do is to rid the lower class of their jobs and replace them with robots. Inarguably, taking care of humans and being in charge of their incomes is a lot of work: employers have to worry about keeping their employees happy, which means no wage cuts, reasonable salaries, and bonuses at times. AI, on the other hand, is expensive but low maintenance. They do not require a lot of tender loving care like humans do.

“All of these robots have an extra umph to them,” she said. “These babies have faster processors, stronger builds, and are overall more intelligent – I made sure of it myself! We want our robots to be as human as possible to minimize all non-human error – such as inaccurate weather analysis – in our harvests.” I asked her why she wanted to use technology (and ultimately, a lot of capital) to humanize robots when they can instead employ real human farmers instead, but she declined to answer. I guess she feared that I would exploit her answer and get her in trouble as a result.

This year’s Harvest Day was the day of my encounter with Tish. When I arrived back at Sumi’s apartment, I recall seeing her in deep distress. Low had announced that PT Kopi Kita had to lay more people off and cut wages due to a bad harvest. Apparently, when the Indonesian farmers double checked the AI’s harvest progress, they found that 20% of the harvest this year consisted of unripe coffee cherries. This means more waste and less coffee for the next harvest cycle. As a result, the robots that dominate Suroboyo decrease the supply of coffee despite the increasing number of people who demand it.

Sumi said that they had let go of one of the accountants, Agus Wijono, who sits right across from her. Before joining PT Kopi Kita, Agus came from a family of coffee farmers who ran out of their jobs when the robots took over. When his father heard of China’s potential arrival in Suroboyo, he pooled his life savings and sent Agus to a local university. True enough, shortly after he graduated, PT Kopi Kita evicted his family, paid them a small sum, and left them unemployed. Agus was the only one who stayed in Suroboyo; he became the family’s breadwinner and sends money home every month. Agus met me over coffee the following morning.

“Why do you hate Low so much?” I started.

“Low thinks that he’s so superior!” he said, banging the table. “Does he really think that he can control us and take over our country like that? First he takes away my life, my family, and now my job? What a bastard!”

“Has he done any good for Suroboyo?”

“No! Everything that The New York Times, or CNN, or whatever you read your news on in the USA, reports about Suroboyo is absolutely false! I couldn’t say much before because I would get fired, but Low tells us to exaggerate PT Kopi Kita data to attract more consumers. I’d know; I work with the company’s finances.”

“Weren’t the robots good for Suroboyo’s economy?”

“At first, we all thought that AI could be that one thing that boosts Indonesia’s economy. Jokowi did too. But it’s been seven years. We got some sort of increase in revenue, made a lot more than Low predicted, but it’s not enough to sustain all the costs that come with developing and maintaining all these stupid robots. I don’t care though. It’s not Indonesia’s money that we’re wasting anyway; it’s China’s. And we hate them.” When I asked Agus to elaborate, he went on about the “stupid robots,” Low’s incompetence, and how much suffering PT Kopi Kita had put his family through.

Since the implementation of AI, coffee production has increased dramatically while its quality decreased significantly. While Suroboyo can perhaps retain a steady income, PT Kopi Kita is gradually losing money, workers, and popularity.

Although the prospect of artificial intelligence seems bright to both Suroboyo and the world at first, implementing it on a large scale disrupts agriculture. Plants grow in an integrated, ever-changing ecosystem where many factors – weather, water supply, soil fertility – cannot be controlled. For example, what occurs in China’s agriculture still differs from that of Indonesia. We can never be able to quantify our environment given the many factors that affect it. Because AI works against an algorithm, robots can’t think for themselves. While robots may respond to the changes around them, they may not be able to adapt to or act upon those changes. This results into poor environmental analysis, poor plant care, and ultimately, poor harvest quality.

So, why implement AI in agriculture at all?

One word: efficiency. But is AI really worth the hassle that humans may create for these people? Although high income workers are integral to managing a stable economy, the economy still has room for low income workers. The unemployment rate is just going to fall if all the low income jobs are replaced by robots. Eventually, workers like Agus – who had lost his job, family, and income – will revolt and wreak havoc in the country. The cost of unhappy workers and citizens evidently outweigh the semi-convenience that AI will bring to the table.

I left Evanston with an artificial understanding about technology and returned with a heavy heart. Despite the digital era, we still need humans. I hope Harrison Low and Xi Jinping remember that.