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RESEARCH TRIANGLE PARK – In 2021 Ada Lopez won the ATHENA Young Professional Leadership Award. The following year she handed the 2022 award to Lindsay Wrege, co-founder and CEO of 321 Coffee.
“She accepted the award and talked about her work,” Lopez recalled. “I learned about 321 Coffee and all the details and thought, ‘Wow, she’s doing such amazing things in the community.’”
The Seed of an Idea
Lopez is a Senior Manager with Lenovo’s Product Diversity Office. Among other things, she and her team look for partnership opportunities with companies that might need technology products or support.
Lopez and Lenovo had previously worked with appliedAIstudio, a human-centered AI development company, collaborating on a project to support noted theorist and robotics expert Peter Scott-Morgan. In 2017 Scott-Morgan was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), a motor neuron disease. Lenovo and appliedAIstudio began a project together with Scott-Morgan to help retrofit his home to facilitate living with his disease. The project was called HighcliffAI, the name Scott-Morgan and his husband Francis gave the home they were building together. The goal was to make the Scott-Morgan property a truly “smart” home and provide safeguards and affordances for a daily life, lived with a disease.
Sadly, in June of last year, Scott-Morgan passed away before the project was complete.
“Peter was about giving back and about making open source software and about, you know, caring for his community. So we didn’t want this incredible project that we started with him to just fade,” Lopez explained. “We wanted his legacy to essentially live on somehow.”
Meanwhile, 321 Coffee was working with another Lenovo project called the Evolve Smart program, bringing Lenovo devices into 321 Coffee spaces. And Wrege, always on the move, was working on opening 321 Coffee’s own roasting facility. At some point, a new project began to gel.
“We were like ‘We can do something with the smart home. Let’s make it a smart workplace and see if we can innovate retail’,” said Lopez. “We started really listening to the pain points, like what are the problems that the roasters are going to have? And it’s that they have to memorize all these steps, a lot of procedural information, and then appliedAIstudio was like, ‘we can totally help with that.’ And that’s sort of how we started coming together.”
The AI Behind the Scenes
HighCliffAI is not a generative, model-based AI system. Instead, it’s built on algorithms that use basic rules to define when the system should intervene as a support system, reminder, or alert.
I spoke with Jerry Overton and Logan Wilt, the co-founders of appliedAIstudio.
“The AI is monitoring the environment and it has basic goals in ensuring that people are thriving, whatever we’ve defined as thriving,” explained Overton. “The basic pattern that we try to follow is we have the machine pulling information, create a plan, so it has an expectation as to what’s normal. And then if it detects any sort of deviation from that, that will prompt.”
In the case of the 321 Coffee Roastery, the AI is customized for the people and processes involved.
“We get to plug into existing data feeds. So, you know, pulling in what the orders are, who the employees are, basically being able to give Highcliff context,” continued Overton. “Here’s the environment that you’re working in. Here’s the amount of work that needs to be done. Here are the people who are doing the work, so you don’t have to program in all of that background information.”
The AI in the Real World
The tools are already in use in a beta phase at the roastery, with plans for an “official” launch in August.
Lopez and the appliedAIstudio team have been collecting feedback on the interactions and prompts, and making iterative changes for the past few months. This process has allowed for a very interactive and collaborative development process, according to both Lopez and the appliedAI team.
“We’ve had a really awesome experience of essentially user-centered development,” said Wilt. “Each week when they go through their roast procedures, we’ve had Highcliffe up and running and add the roasters using it. And then we’ve been getting feedback on finding that balance of giving enough information without being overbearing.”
The original ideas of how to support the 321 Coffee staff have evolved. The coffee company is passionate in its support of people with intellectual and physical disabilities and its locations, including the roastery, are staffed by many such individuals. The guidelines and support offered by Lenovo devices are intended to provide prompts and details to support the staff in the roasting process, but Lopez realized they needed to make the interactions as accessible and painless as possible.
“We thought okay, real simple pictures, few words, easy buttons. And you know, they were like, ‘Yeah, it’s still a lot of cognitive load’,” recalled Lopez. “It’s really important to listen to the person actually doing the work.”
Lopez began working with Sophie, a 321 Coffee staff member.
“Sophie definitely took the lead. ‘This is what I need. This is how I wanted to look’,” said Lopez. “They made special requests. They want a board that measures production to keep them motivated. That’s not something we had considered at all in the beginning.”
Lindsay Wrege, 321 Coffee co-founder also came to depend on Sophie’s insights.
“Sophie is a really strong roaster and she, probably most out of the whole roasting team, has really taken [to the technology],” said Wrege. “She’s very excited. She recognizes that the technology can really help her become more independent.”
Lopez and the appliedAIstudio team took their original imperatives: a safe work environment, reducing food waste, etc., and began looking at other factors like reinforcing employee independence, well-being, and enjoyment of the work.
An unintended consequence of the iterative process has been commentary from the 321 Coffee staff on the Lenovo hardware, a piece of the project not intended for review.
“Depending on what feedback we get from our tablet team, maybe that’s an area that we can continue to explore to make our tablets even more inclusive and accessible,” said Lopez. “That would be great information, which is totally unexpected.”
HighCliff was built to help support aging and disabled populations staying in their homes, and while the pivot to workspaces is intriguing, there are clearly also use cases for individuals and care facilities. Lopez hopes this project will inform the solution for other scenarios.
“I can see a facility that helps aging population say, ‘Okay, you’re working on this software. What do we need to buy to put one of these systems in our facility? What does this actually really cost? What does this really look like? Who does it benefit?’”
The appliedAIstudio staff has been focused on home-based implementations for several years now and is using this case study to address many of the underlying concerns.
“It’s really important,” said Wilt, “not to be overbearing. To be there only when needed, but also not creepy. You don’t want to be the creepy AI in the background. And so having a breadth of hardware is really important to be able to strike that balance.”
The appliedAI team is continuing work on providing a home-based solution and hoping for further partnership with Lenovo products.
“Our ultimate goal is to transform the home into a safe and supportive place. And so our next milestone on that is to work with Lenovo on a Home Bundle,” said Overton.
Meanwhile, Sophie’s experience with roasting technology has allowed her to step into a new role at 321 Coffee.
“Now in addition to roasting, [she] has also been able to step in and work with the team in a leadership capacity, which is awesome to see her develop that skill,” said Wrege. “She and I have spoken at a couple of different Lenovo conferences and she’s been able to speak from her perspective on why accessibility is important, what is the importance of being able to be independent in your job, the importance of inclusion.”
The meeting of these three companies on this project has been transformational for all.
“We all want the project to succeed, but we’re all coming from a different perspective,” said Lopez. “And I think that is really key to having a successful project as well. You know, making sure it really works for everyone, for all the stakeholders.”
“It’s just so cool,” said Wrege. “We would never have been able to do anything with AI without this. And so I think it’s just really unique and a huge testament to Lenovo, this commitment to the community and using technology for good.”