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Introducing the robot wine critic

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In the next five years, when you call customer service or technical support for help with your checking account, internet connection or credit card, you’re likely to speak—not to a real human being—but to a robot.

“Hello,” it might say, in its weird, Stephen Hawking-like drone, “my name is Robbie, and I’m here to assist you.”

In fact, “Robots already are starting to displace some humans from low-end tasks,” reports the Wall Street Journal, and “within five years” they’ll be “smart enough to replace the human phone operators who do jobs like fielding calls from bank clients or helping people reset their modems.”

Given Moore’s law and the advances in artificial intelligence, it’s only a matter of time before human wine critics are also replaced by machines. It’s not hard to imagine how this might work. Say you’re in the wine aisle at the supermarket wondering which wine to buy. You’ll take your smart phone, ask Siri about it, and be connected instantly to a cloud-based “wine taster” who will tell you everything you want to know about the wine. This wine taster will be as human as anyone “real” you could talk to. It will ask you questions to establish your personal preferences (which, of course, it will remember, the way iTunes does), and will be able to tell you if you can find a better deal down the street. Eventually, it will even have an emotional component, possessing the ability to get excited about certain wines and, if you wish, to rate them on a numerical basis. It will be tireless, able to review thousands of wines a day, and its reviews will be utterly consistent—unlike those of human tasters, who are subject to frailty and fallibility. And there never will be any suspicion of ulterior motives (such as advertising) in a robotic review. Like the Mentats in Dune, robot reviewers will be objective and truthful to a fault.

Looking out even further, it’s entirely possible that your smart device will be able to let you actually taste a wine you’re interested in. There’s already talk of “food-focused virtual reality”; meanwhile, Fast Company reports on a “simulate[d]…sensation of taste digitally,” whereby “a new methodology” can “deliver and control primary taste sensations electronically on the human tongue” that “trick” taste sensors “into thinking they are experiencing food-related sensations…”. Throw in a virtual reality headset, and you have what Britain’s Sky News calls an “immersive [wine] tasting experience.”

Looked at from this perspective, what we now call “wine critics” will someday be as antiquated as streetlamp lighters or rotary phone operators.

Geraldine

But wait a minute, could there be a fly in the ointment? There could indeed. Who will pay for all this gimmickry? It won’t happen for free. Moreover, how would you prevent a nefarious influence from hacking into the system? At the first sign of untoward activity, the system’s credibility would be compromised, as Yelp’s has been. There will still be millions of people who will believe in their robot wine reviews, but eventually a small cadre of wine lovers who think of themselves as special will revolt against the machine. They will find their own gurus—human, not automated—and anoint them to exalted status. This is precisely what happened in the 1970s and 1980s with the rise of Parker, Wine Spectator and the others. It seems likely to have been a process that will replicate itself.

I’m off to Oregon tomorrow and will try to blog from there. Salud, and stay safe.

  1. [This is from Michael Brill. For some reason he was unable to post from his computer.]

    You’ll be forgiven for calling this “gimmickry” in 2016… but in your 5 year timeframe it’s going to happen.

    But critics don’t go away… they are fodder for a metacritic (bot) who can synthesize their perspectives, combine user preferences, story content (region, vintage, winemaker, etc.) and local availability/pricing. This bot then effectively sells wine the same way a retail sales clerk or sommelier does, except it optimizes this process for consumer benefit.

    Everything is in place:
    * Hundreds of thousands of annual critic reviews
    * The technology to understand those reviews and extract core content
    * The technology to generate novel text reviews as a consensus view of those reviews – with language customized to each user depending upon their background
    * The technology to integrate retail inventory (e.g., winesearcher.com)
    * The basics of conversational “selling” bots.

    (As an aside, I worked on a precursor to this a few years ago but didn’t get around to shipping it… https://dl.dropboxusercontent.com/u/26843720/cruzu_original_app/video/CruzuPreBetaOverview.mp4 … source code is sitting around somewhere and it’d be a week to put it under a bot interface if anyone’s interested.)

    “Who’s going to pay for this?” The incremental cost of a recommendation is zero. Critics already pump out content and that content is published broadly. However, it can monetized either through a transaction fee, in-venue promotion of specific brands/regions, couponing, etc. – lots of ways.

    Will critics themselves be replaced by sensory machines that can correlate groups of chemical signatures to sensory and quality characteristics? Sure, we’ve already seen this with Enologix… the guys at Next Glass should have been able to do this by now. Upstarts like AVA Winery in San Francisco are working on 100% lab-created “wines” and should be able to solve a big chunk of this problem.

    So maybe critics don’t survive this… but right now they pump out enough content that is effectively free for the machine (happy to talk about IP issues here) to do an 80/20 job.

    The reality is that the bots are coming and they’re going to take a lot of jobs. But we have the benefit of foresight, so we should be able to find new things to do before it’s too late.

  2. Bob Henry says:

    Here’s a harbinger from a decade ago . . .

    From the Los Angeles Times “Main News” Section
    (September 3, 2006, Page Unknown):

    “Danger, Will Robinson — No Good With Fish;
    In Japan, robots have become wine taste testers.
    But sommeliers’ jobs are probably safe.
    The devices can rate just a few dozen vintages.”

    http://articles.latimes.com/print/2006/sep/03/news/adfg-winebot3

    By Eric Talmadge
    Associated Press

    The ability to discern good wine from bad, name the specific brand from a tiny sip and recommend a complementary cheese would seem to be about as human a skill as there is. In Japan, robots are doing it.

    Researchers at NEC System Technologies and Mie University have designed a robot that can taste — an electromechanical sommelier able to identify dozens of different wines, cheeses and hors d’oeuvres.

    “There are all kinds of robots out there doing many different things,” said Hideo Shimazu, director of the NEC System Technology Research Laboratory and a joint-leader of the robot project. “But we decided to focus on wine because that seemed like a real challenge.”

    Last month, they unveiled the fruits of their two-year effort — a green-and-white prototype with eyes, a head that swivels and a mouth that lights up whenever the robot talks.

    The “tasting” is done elsewhere, however.

    At the end of the robot’s left arm is an infrared spectrometer. When objects are placed up against the sensor, the robot fires off a beam of infrared light. The reflected light is then analyzed in real time to determine the object’s chemical composition.

    “All foods have a unique fingerprint,” Shimazu said. “The robot uses that data to identify what it is inspecting right there on the spot.”

    When it has identified a wine, the robot speaks up in a childlike voice. It names the brand and adds a comment or two on the taste, such as whether it is a buttery chardonnay or a full-bodied shiraz, and what kind of foods might go well on the side.

  3. Bob Henry says:

    Michael,

    You write:

    “Everything is in place:

    “• Hundreds of thousands of annual critic reviews …

    “‘Who’s going to pay for this?’ The incremental cost of a recommendation is zero. Critics already pump out content and that content is published broadly. …”

    I demur.

    Which American wine media are responsible for the vast majority of published reviews?

    Wine Spectator, Wine Enthusiast, Wine & Spirits, Wine Advocate, Vinous. (Not newspapers.)

    Editorial that is protected behind pay walls.

    Unless the wine media are paid for access to their reviews, the wine bot will be lacking “style content” to populate its database and draw recommendations.

    (Reproducing old reviews is of little use to the wine consuming public. Only contemporary reviews of wines on the shelves today have relevance.)

    We know that these days published reviews are for wines scoring 80 or 85 points and above.

    And we know that most small wineries are never reviewed.

    All of which limits the comprehensiveness of the wine bot’s recommendations.

    ~~ Bob

  4. Hey Bob.

    “Editorial that is protected behind pay walls.”
    Not so much… critics make money from trade customers who republish content. Most reviews are published publicly (and multiple times). Even if it’s not, what’s important is the factual information, not the actual expression and that isn’t afforded many protections in the US.

  5. Bob Henry says:

    And I demur:

    “Most reviews are published publicly (and multiple times).”

    The most successful wine review publications are subscription based. That is their business model. (What made Asian investors purportedly pay $15 million to acquire The Wine Advocate from Robert Parker.)

    They do not give away their “content” for free.

    We all have heard the Steward Brand saying: “Information wants to be free.”

    We forget to quote the next sentence that comes after that one:

    “Information wants to be expensive.”

    From The Wall Street Journal “Opinion” Section
    (February 23, 2009, Page A13):

    “Information Wants to Be Expensive”

    http://online.wsj.com/article/SB123534987719744781.html

    By L. Gordon Crovitz
    “Information Age” Column

  6. Bob Henry says:

    And I demur:

    “… critics make money from trade customers who republish content.”

    For a critic to make money from a trade customer (e.g., winery) by charging a fee to reprint a review as a shelf talker, that trade customer has to have a marketing budget that covers such an expense.

    Only the largest wineries and their importers/distributors have such budgets.

    The vast majority of wineries are small family farms that have no marketing budgets. And very little in the way of sales budgets.

    So the Steve Heimoffs of this world and their wine magazine employers aren’t going to see much coin of the realm making its way into their pockets from “republishing” (repurposing) reviews.

    (A separate consideration: grocery store chains and Big Box retailers and wine store chains “nix” the use of winery-created shelf talkers in their stores. They detract from the aesthetic appeal of the wine aisle.

    Further, these retailers don’t want to be sued like BevMo for misleading shelf talkers:

    http://losangeles.cbslocal.com/2016/05/03/is-bevmo-engaging-in-a-bait-and-switch-with-wine-suit-claims-it-is/)

    I just don’t see the revenue stream you project that “monetizes” the “content” created by the wine media.

  7. ‘They do not give away their “content” for free.’

    Indirectly, they do indeed.

    Traditional content models weren’t created with the idea that software would scour the internet for content, extract facts, synthesize those with other sources of factual information and then generate novel expression that is in no way a violation of anyone’s IP rights.

    You can’t simultaneously benefit from the public display of your content and hide it.

    This isn’t specific to wine of course. Publishing is under attack by technology everywhere.

  8. Bob Henry says:

    How does the wine bot breach Wine Spectator’s or Wine Advocate’s pay wall, and extract “content”?

    “Content” that is not otherwise floating freely around the Web?

  9. Here’s a trivial game you can play at home:

    2013 caymus special selection (robert parker | wine advocate | wine spectator | jancis robinson | wine enthusiast | vinous | tanzer)

    I think you get the point. It can get way more fancy.

  10. Bob Henry says:

    Here’s my counterpoint game:

    http://www.wine-searcher.com/find/jean+thevenet+dom+de+la+bongrand+cuvee+tradition+e+j+vire+clesse+maconnais+burgundy+france/2010/usa

    A great French Chardonnay from a winemaker who Robert Parker calls a “genius.”

    Good luck finding any review — stateside or across The Pond.

    Good luck finding a wine store that sells it.

    (Aside: I did. To the glee of my customers.)

    Good luck finding any restaurant that has it on its wine menu.

  11. Nowhere did I say that any recommendation is better than that from a local fine wine retailer who discovers and makes available small producers that are not generally available. I’m all for that, but these, as you know, are a dying breed.

    The discussion was more about Mike Mulligan vs. Steam Shovel. My point is that now the Steam Shovel sucks out the soul of Mike Mulligan and his pals and combines that with its robotic heft to create Mechamike.

    The answer seems to me that Mike should become Mechamike. Maybe this is what Vinous becomes?

  12. Bob Henry says:

    Michael,

    I took you up on your game challenge:

    https://www.google.com/search?q=2013+caymus+special+selection+(robert+parker+%7C+wine+advocate+%7C+wine+spectator+%7C+jancis+robinson+%7C+wine+enthusiast+%7C+vinous+%7C+tanzer)&oq=2013+caymus+special+selection+(robert+parker+%7C+wine+advocate+%7C+wine+spectator+%7C+jancis+robinson+%7C+wine+enthusiast+%7C+vinous+%7C+tanzer)&aqs=chrome..69i57.2252j0j7&sourceid=chrome&ie=UTF-8

    I found one 2013 review from James Suckling (courtesy of K & L Wines’s website).

    No reviews from the other individuals or publications you listed.

    ~~ Bob

  13. I’m looking forward to a future when Robots can just drink the wine for us, post photos of it on facebook, and we can go online to find out what a great time we’re having.

  14. Ha… I should have looked before I sent! Change the 2013 to 2012 as it looks like there aren’t many reviews of the 2013 yet (which is kind of anomaly). Let’s put this thread to bed if you don’t mind.

  15. Bob Henry says:

    Updating this comment thread . . .

    From the Charleston (South Carolina) Post & Courier
    (August 23, 2016):

    “Rating the Future of Wine Sales in Post-scoring World”

    Link: http://www.postandcourier.com/food/rating-the-future-of-wine-sales-in-post-scoring-world/article_d98cc65b-cab8-508d-b444-fe39b1ee3bef.html

    Excerpt:

    “Wine critics and the scores they assign to bottles have declined in prestige so precipitously that a recent in-house study at Whole Foods Market showed customers are more likely to make buying decisions based on friends’, relatives’ and salespeople’s suggestions.”

    [A BevCon Charleston panel discussion on retail wine marketing. Participants: wine writer Jordan Mackay, wine wholesaler Harry Root, Master Sommelier Bobby Stuckey, and Whole Foods’ Associate Global Beverage Buyer/Master Sommelier Devon Broglie.]

  16. Well Bob… I think I’m the last person on earth who thinks that critics are not only hugely influential today, they will (or at least can) become more so in the future.

    Will Whole Foods staff the wine department with a knowledgeable sales person to hand sell each customer? Let’s see, that’s 14 hrs/day times 7 days… let’s be conservative and say that’s 2 FTEs @ $60K/year fully-loaded times 462 stores = $55 million/year in sales cost. If we use their overall 35% gross margin, they need to generate another $157 million in revenue to break even on that staff. Let me know how that goes.

    In the meantime, the next few years will see the rise of AI-based advisors that simply know a whole lot more about wine and user preferences and the intersection of those than a human ever will. Those advisors need to gobble data and as we’ve discussed elsewhere, professional reviewers are massively better at producing that content than an infinite number of consumers. That’s why I don’t see them going away anytime soon.

  17. Bob Henry says:

    Actually, Whole Foods is going self-serve in the wine department of their new, smaller, “Millennial-friendly” experimental 365 stores.

    Say hello to their information-dispensing “Delectable kiosk” robot.

    “Can Whole Foods Keep Pace with Innovation?;
    Inside the grocery chain’s new high-tech ‘365’ store”

    http://www.geekwire.com/2016/can-whole-foods-keep-pace-innovation-inside-grocery-chains-new-high-tech-365-store/

    Excerpt:

    “And in the store’s alcohol department, 365 partnered with Banquet by Delectable. Displays using the smartphone app can scan a bottle of wine and provide descriptions and ratings so YOU DON’T HAVE TO HUNT DOWN AN EMPLOYEE FOR THAT SPECIAL BRAND OF SERVICE. (sic)

    [CAPITALIZATION for emphasis. ~~ Bob]

    “‘You can see the reviews, the taste profile, pairings. It’s really a great resource,’ [Isabelle] Francois [vice president of 365 by Whole Foods Market] said. And while the app is available on anyone’s phone, the in-store version is specially curated for 365’s liquor assortment.”

    See one of the article’s photos, whose caption reads:

    “365’s [senior marketing director] Natanya Anderson shows off a bottle of Veuve Clicquot she’s about to scan at a Delectable kiosk to gain more information on the product in the liquor department.”

  18. Bob Henry says:

    As for robot wine mixologists, see this article:

    “Vinfusion Wine Robot Blends a Glass Based on Your Taste”

    https://www.engadget.com/2016/11/02/bottoms-up-with-cambridge-consultants-vinfusion/

  19. Bob Henry says:

    From the Los Angeles Times “Main News” Section
    (September 3, 2006, Page Unknown):

    “Danger, Will Robinson — No Good With Fish;
    In Japan, robots have become wine taste testers.
    But sommeliers’ jobs are probably safe.
    The devices can rate just a few dozen vintages.”

    http://articles.latimes.com/print/2006/sep/03/news/adfg-winebot3

    By Eric Talmadge
    Associated Press

    The ability to discern good wine from bad, name the specific brand from a tiny sip and recommend a complementary cheese would seem to be about as human a skill as there is. In Japan, robots are doing it.

    Researchers at NEC System Technologies and Mie University have designed a robot that can taste — an electromechanical sommelier able to identify dozens of different wines, cheeses and hors d’oeuvres.

    “There are all kinds of robots out there doing many different things,” said Hideo Shimazu, director of the NEC System Technology Research Laboratory and a joint-leader of the robot project. “But we decided to focus on wine because that seemed like a real challenge.”

    Last month, they unveiled the fruits of their two-year effort — a green-and-white prototype with eyes, a head that swivels and a mouth that lights up whenever the robot talks.

    The “tasting” is done elsewhere, however.

    At the end of the robot’s left arm is an infrared spectrometer. When objects are placed up against the sensor, the robot fires off a beam of infrared light. The reflected light is then analyzed in real time to determine the object’s chemical composition.

    “All foods have a unique fingerprint,” Shimazu said. “The robot uses that data to identify what it is inspecting right there on the spot.”

    When it has identified a wine, the robot speaks up in a childlike voice. It names the brand and adds a comment or two on the taste, such as whether it is a buttery chardonnay or a full-bodied shiraz, and what kind of foods might go well on the side.

  20. Bob Henry says:

    From the Los Angeles Times “Main News” Section
    (September 3, 2006, Page Unknown):

    “Danger, Will Robinson — No Good With Fish;
    In Japan, robots have become wine taste testers.
    But sommeliers’ jobs are probably safe.
    The devices can rate just a few dozen vintages.”

    Link: http://articles.latimes.com/print/2006/sep/03/news/adfg-winebot3

    By Eric Talmadge
    Associated Press

    The ability to discern good wine from bad, name the specific brand from a tiny sip and recommend a complementary cheese would seem to be about as human a skill as there is. In Japan, robots are doing it.

    Researchers at NEC System Technologies and Mie University have designed a robot that can taste — an electromechanical sommelier able to identify dozens of different wines, cheeses and hors d’oeuvres.

    “There are all kinds of robots out there doing many different things,” said Hideo Shimazu, director of the NEC System Technology Research Laboratory and a joint-leader of the robot project. “But we decided to focus on wine because that seemed like a real challenge.”

    Last month, they unveiled the fruits of their two-year effort — a green-and-white prototype with eyes, a head that swivels and a mouth that lights up whenever the robot talks.

    The “tasting” is done elsewhere, however.

    At the end of the robot’s left arm is an infrared spectrometer. When objects are placed up against the sensor, the robot fires off a beam of infrared light. The reflected light is then analyzed in real time to determine the object’s chemical composition.

    “All foods have a unique fingerprint,” Shimazu said. “The robot uses that data to identify what it is inspecting right there on the spot.”

    When it has identified a wine, the robot speaks up in a childlike voice. It names the brand and adds a comment or two on the taste, such as whether it is a buttery chardonnay or a full-bodied shiraz, and what kind of foods might go well on the side.

  21. Thanks Bob… all steps in the right direction… or at least steps in some direction. e.g., providing reference material in a kiosk is better than not having reference material. However, as you stand surrounded by hundreds and hundreds of wines, you simply need to be sold. Apps are generally pretty poor tools for shopping online, so they’re only marginally less bad in-venue – simply by virtue of it having fewer products.

    The big difference between a human and machine in a retail setting is the ability to sell. Historically, machines couldn’t really sell – they have little understanding of language, context, sales techniques, etc. But that is going to change pretty darn fast.

  22. Bob Henry says:

    The larger Whole Foods stores have so-called “Wine Specialist/Buyers” on scene.

    But with last year’s reduction in force of 2,000 employees, those Specialists are overtasked with: buying, erecting “auto-ship” floor displays, dismantling “auto-ship” floor displays, tasting with winery sales reps, and . . . finally . . . “hand selling” on the sales floor IF THEY HAVE TIME.

    And invariably they don’t.

    So that responsibility falls on a Team Member, whose principal job is restocking the shelves when replenishment wine deliveries arrive.

    A Team Member who has little or no firtshand reading or tasting experience with wines in general — and specifically the wines on the shelves.

    (“Why” you ask? Because Team Members are generally not invited to sit in on the sample tastings conducted by visiting sales reps for the benefit of the store’s Wine Specialist.)

    Whole Foods touts itself as staffing “experts” in their departments. But that’s largely urban legend puffery.

    At Whole Foods stores, more often than not the customers know more about the product on the shelves than the wine department staff (who can’t afford to buy the offerings, given their modest hourly wage incomes. More modest than the $60K annual income you use as a projection for your “back of the envelope” calculations.)

    And the news of the day regarding Whole Foods?

    Their co-CEO is losing his job.

    “John Mackey Will Be Sole CEO of Whole Foods Market”

    http://www.wsj.com/articles/john-mackey-will-be-sole-ceo-of-whole-foods-market-1478121690

  23. Bob Henry says:

    And here’s the augmented news of the day (actually, tomorrow’s headline):

    “CEO Revamp Raises Questions About Whole Foods’ Strategy”

    http://www.wsj.com/articles/ceo-revamp-raises-questions-about-whole-foods-strategy-1478197430

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