This Slack bot helped an entire team pick coffee flavors by consensus

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When bots finally do take over the world, let’s hope they allow us to at least pick our own coffee. We might all be plugged into machines Keanu Reeves-style as in The Matrix, providing the power they need, but maybe we’ll still be allowed to partake of a fine blend intravenously.

Until then, there’s the Crema coffee bot for Slack. I tested it with a group of college students recently, and it works like a digital butler, not only asking everyone to weigh in on the flavors they like and picking the winner, but also shipping out the beans direct to your doorstep.

At first it didn’t seem like machine learning. It was more like machine annoying. With apologies to the fine folks at Crema (which is known for their coffee subscription service), the bot interrupted the team on Slack a few times, asking everyone to vote on coffee. There’s a little bit of hand-holding involved, because you have to select the size you want and configure a few other options at first, like where to send the package.

To be honest, I didn’t mind at all — I’m a coffee snob. The students didn’t really understand why they needed to vote, as evidenced by how long it took them to click a little vote button. Eventually, they played along. The bot collected the winners on its own.

The cool part — which is to say, the part that involves some machine learning — is that everyone also gets to rate the coffee after it arrives, and this rating system then feeds into an algorithm that the bot uses to pick the next batch of flavors. For example, let’s say everyone keeps rating a fruity flavor highly. The bot will make suggestions along those lines.

“The bot just asks a couple of questions upfront to ascertain how much coffee you need, how often,” explained Tyler Tate, the CEO at Crema. “The real team personalization piece starts with the initial voting of which coffee to get first, and then continues as the team later rates that coffee, votes on what to get next, etc. So if you add the Crema Slackbot to a channel everyone has access to, they’ll have the opportunity to vote.”

I really liked how it worked. You don’t have to do anything except vote and rate. There’s some fun involved, thinking back to whether you liked a flavor. And then the coffee just arrives in the mail. You don’t have to head out to Costco ever again.

The Slackbot encourages team dynamics — you can even start lobbying folks in the channel to vote for the blend you like, although the Crema bot doesn’t haven’t anything to do with that.

The bot doesn’t just collect votes and choose the popular one. It uses a concept called collaborative filtering, which might sound familiar if you have ever used Amazon. It’s a comparison between what you like and what everyone else likes. In music, you might say, a bot would recommend Coldplay to U2 fans not just because you listen to U2 constantly and might like Coldplay because of its similar sound, but because a lot of other people in general also listen to Coldplay.

All I can say about the Crema bot is — it worked. We started liking the coffee more and more, and I found the selections seemed to match up with the most people on the team. As is true of every great bot, this one not only acquired the right information but did all of the legwork so we didn’t have to do anything but unpack the coffee and start a new roast.

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