This S’pore startup uses Singpass to build alcohol vending machines: are there any loopholes?

When it comes to vending machines, none can beat the Land of the Rising Sun. You can get anything under the glow of those fluorescent lights — from hot soup to T-shirts, convenience is truly the name of the game. 

As a country where we like things just within arm’s reach, I’d reckon we are not too far behind Japan. From Norwegian salmon to Wagyu beef, and now, the first-ever alcohol vending machine from local startup Cellarbration.

A reality where you can get a bottle of Pinot with a few pushes of a button sounds like a reality I want to be living in — and I am.

Vending machines are a dime a dozen, but one that’s peddling alcohol is a little more sophisticated. Cellarbration’s vending machine makes use of Singpass to verify the purchaser’s age.

How it began

“Cellarbration was started in 2011, with the ambition to provide consumers of legal drinking age the convenience and ease of being able to purchase alcohol online”, said Jason Tan, general manager of Cellarbration.

As one of the online and retail destinations for the largest selection of beers, wines, spirits, and whiskies in Singapore, this seemed like the next natural step.

The vending machines are equipped with a robotic arm to dispense heavy, oddly-shaped, fragile items such as glass bottles without damaging the products. Therefore, you can rest assured that your MacCallum will arrive safely into hand without a scratch.

Image Credit: Cellarbration

The idea for the alcoholic vending machine came when the government first announced the rollout of Singpass.

Since Singpass is built as the national identification system to authenticate digital sign-in to verify one’s identity and age, the team at Cellarbration was inspired by this and went on to explore how to integrate this technology in vending machines. 

Cellarbration alcohol vending machine singpass
Using a smartphone app with the vending machine / Image Credit: GovTech

Cellarbration worked with fintech and artificial intelligence (AI) tech company, Auresys, to incorporate this new verification feature into vending machines.

Through the Singpass mobile app, buyers can easily verify their age by scanning a QR code at the machine.

As we know, the Singpass app — one of Singapore’s Smart Nation projects — has evolved into a kind of an overachiever.

Singpass offers access to more than 1,400 digital services and empowers over 340 government agencies and private organisations. An ever-evolving service, you can now use it across sectors ranging from banking and insurance to healthcare and charities.

You can also use Singpass to conveniently retrieve your personal information, digitally sign documents and remotely authorise transactions through the app.

With all these features at one’s fingertips, what this means is that businesses looking to digitalise can now tap into Singpass’ trusted digital ecosystem and infrastructure where data and services transcend the boundaries of organisations.

The myriad uses of Singpass APIs

Businesses and agencies can tap on Singpass’ application programming interfaces (APIs) to enable access or create new value-added services for Singapore residents.

The APIs can be integrated with systems to offer a range of services, including user registration, customer authentication, and identity verification, just to name a few.

Some APIs that would appeal to most businesses include Login and Verify.

Login is a secure authentication gateway. With Login, customers can easily and securely access services without having to remember an extra set of sign-in credentials. Businesses can also access a wide pool of Singpass users who are familiar with the platform.

Among the private sector organisations that use Login are OCBC Bank, Prudential, NTUC Union, Income Insurance, Singapore Exchange, the Singapore National Employers’ Federation, and JustLogin’s HR solutions.

Verify on the other hand, allows users to perform in-person identity verification and data transfer through the scanning of QR codes.

Verify is ideal for businesses that require face-to-face registration processes. It can verify a person’s identity without the need for individuals to present or hand over their identity documents.

Infographic of how to buy drinks from Cellarbration
How to buy drinks from Cellarbration’s alcohol vending machine / Image Credit: Cellarbration

The same process is done with Cellarbration’s vending machine, and it only takes is a few simple steps. All you have to do is scan your QR code and verify your age and voila, the drinks are yours.

What are the possible loopholes?

Of course, this seems like a perfect machine. A godsend for introverts who would like to get their tipple without unnecessary human interaction or judgement. So what if you like that IPA that is just a little too bougie for your good?

However, there are a couple of loopholes that one has to consider when rolling out a machine like this. First and foremost, there is an islandwide ban on the sale of alcohol from 10.30pm to 7.30am. For Cellarbration, there is an easy workaround.

“The vending machines are backed by AI that can be remotely managed on the backend so that we can ensure rules and restrictions are set in place and complied”, explained Jason. True enough, this is an easy fix, and something technology is good for.

But there is also the question of privacy. With such information ready at our fingertips, who’s to say that these buying habits are not going to be used against us somehow? Moreover, with the known location along with timestamps, would this open the user to dangerous situations such as stalking?

Lastly, there are those pesky teenagers looking to have their first sip of Jack Daniels. Would these vending machines make it easier for them to purchase that elusive can of beer? After all, they would just have to borrow a parent’s, or a stranger’s phone and the beer is theirs for the taking.

Cellarbration alcohol vending machine singpass
Image Credit: Cellarbration

Despite these possible loopholes, Cellarbration is looking into more vending machines in the future, and it is not the only one in the game.

With local fintech company Ascan planning to launch a new feature in vending machines to allow customers to buy alcoholic drinks using Singpass, it seems like more players are buying into this idea too.

Is this more of a threat or an encouraging move? The folks at Cellarbration see it as the latter.

We are indeed excited to be the first in Singapore to introduce the Singpass-enabled vending machines. With more such vending machines being introduced, it would bring about added convenience, without the hassle of waiting especially for consumers who are looking to quench their thirst.

Jason Tan, general manager of Cellarbration

While the added convenience is an obvious boon to consumers, we have to consider the possible tradeoffs when technology is embraced so quickly and with such open arms. We might be just one drink away from a Black Mirror episode, and we certainly don’t want that.

Featured Image Credit: Cellarbration / GovTech

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