The “radical hedonism” of the Roboexoticists—exemplified by the “interactive wearable technology” of a plastic dress that pours White Russians while you play Truth or Dare—is tomfoolery pointing toward wisdom. The festival organizers understand well that the intrinsic decadence of robot bartenders is essential to their appeal. Clearly it would be more sensible to build a robot short-order cook and more family-friendly to equip a computerized server with an ice-cream scoop and 00011111 tubs of Baskin-Robbins. Yes, here and there one catches notice of robots that pull espresso shots or of Polish design students cooking up robot chefs, but robot bartenders remain the big game in town, despite the noted disharmony of liquid and electricity. Drinks and robotics are a good thematic fit: The history of the cocktail is a story of ingenuity in pursuit of excess.
I would suppose that robot chefs sparkle less brightly in comparison to robot bartenders because nutrition is as primal a necessity as love, and the idea arrives with a subtextual side of organic unpleasantness involving fears of a famine wrought by malfunctioning Automats and alienation from one’s own being. “How will we relate to objects made completely by a machine?” wonders a designer amazed by the Polish design students but curious about the Promethean flame-broiler they have stolen from the Gods: “How will these objects relate to our emotions?"
Because it is inessential to basic life, the cocktail may not be subject to such fraught concerns. Or perhaps such existential cares don’t seem as pressing in this context because robot bartenders are servants of a languid fantasy out of Woody Allen’s Sleeper, with its cyber-sybaritic vision of a populace mollified and molly-fried by the Orb. Or maybe such concerns would still obtain if the robot bartender weren’t so gosh-darn efficient at enabling the concerned party to drink them away.
Also, I will venture that this dream endures, among engineers, because party-planning is fun, and devoting one’s energies to making a Boilermaker-maker gives every day at the lab a faint undertone of festive anticipation. Further, I suspect that the current boom in booze robotics has to do with programmers being fancifully literal-minded in addressing “the cocktail-party problem”—the difficulty of designing a computer that can “distinguish a target voice” in a noisy room. Obviously, a competent electronic barkeep needs to focus on you asking him for a drink and not on your nearby friend’s bad pickup lines.
A good bartender is an expert at reading social cues, and this, finally, is the most sophisticated motive compelling the most talented inventors. Any dingbat can train his stereo to mix a margarita; the real challenge to cocktail-roboticists, in the lab as at faculty parties, lies in negotiating the subtleties of human interaction. Take a look at the social-circuitry of JAMES, an anagram for an E.U. research collaboration, Joint Action for Multimodal Embodied Social Systems. They’re not even bothering with his training yet. He can’t even open a Coke. But, as explained in a recent paper titled “Automatic detection of service initiation signals used in bars,” he can read body language and discern the difference between a person who is standing at the bar because he wants a drink and one who is just standing there like a nimrod. The development of social intelligence is the core goal, and the researchers believe that the “bar scenario” represents a rich but modestly ambitious environment for testing it. “We picked a bar setting because it’s social but not too complicated,” Businessweek quoted Bielefeld University’s Jan de Ruiter, a cognitive scientist who has never run into an ex-girlfriend while out on a drinks date.
Flipping through a popular intro-to-robotics textbook, we discover a meaningful aside: “An improved version of the ELIZA program [which famously emulates a therapist] could be useful as part of the intelligence for a robot bartender, in that it would be able to listen and react to customers telling it their problems ...” After reviewing decades of articles introducing robot bartenders, I am struck by the persistence of this genre trope. “Mechanized bartenders make poor listeners,” Popular Science lamented of an old German model. Likewise, Stephen Krause allowed that there was one thing the Comp-U-Bar could not do: “Listen to your troubles.” Again and again—in the language of the fourth estate as in the imagery of The Fifth Element—we receive an image of sad sack weeping into his beer, his feelings alien to the automaton.
This stock scene of pathos exists, I think, to honor an idea rendered, most famously, by H.L. Mencken: “Bartenders, as a class, are probably the most adept practical psychologists on Earth.” But also the scene comforts those afflicted with human emotion. Yes, it acknowledges, a robot that makes Kamikaze shots is totally awesome. But how much awesomer it is to feel!—to feel sad or happy; to feel buzzed or clear-headed; to feel the pleasure of a passing interaction with a fellow sentient being making a drink just for you; to feel, above all, understood. The robot bartender won’t have truly arrived until scientists develop one than can capably fake empathy.
At that point, some people, terrified by what science has wrought, will feel that they need a drink. The appropriate cocktail for that strange occasion will be the Hemingway Daiquiri. Humanity will want to honor an idea Ernest crooned in 1935: “Modern life ... is often a mechanical oppression and liquor is the only mechanical relief.”