These Robot Bartenders Would Like to Mix You a Drink

Wine, beer, and other potent potables.
Oct. 30 2013 6:45 AM

Do Androids Dream of Electric Schnapps?

The history and future of bartending robots.

Illustration by Mark Alan Stamaty.

Illustration by Mark Alan Stamaty

Pour one out for Stephen R. Krause, a software developer and electronics engineer, dead this year on his 76th birthday. His inventions helped companies take stock of their merchandise and individuals check their lotto numbers—and he combined the two interests (inventory control, mechanized vice) in another invention yet: U.S. Patent 3,409,176 A, Automatic liquid dispensing device for cocktails and the like.

In 1968, in a showroom decorated like a 19th-century saloon, Krause unveiled an appliance instantiating an enduring fetish of the 21st. The Comp-U-Bar 801 held 1,000 recipes in its magnetic memory and chilled 36 liquor bottles in its one-ton body. It mixed a drink in four seconds, a quickness to whet the newswire’s interest: “The waitress or bartender inserts a plastic computer card into a slot, selects the desired drink from an alphabetized list or a rotating disk, pushes a button, and presto.” Krause sold a grand total of six. He had slightly better success with the behemoth’s sibling product, Bar-Tronic, a model scaled for the executive suite and further adaptable to yachts and aircraft.

Where am I going with this?

Troy Patterson Troy Patterson

Troy Patterson is Slate's writer at large and writes the Gentleman Scholar column.

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To the future! The inventor’s soul lives on in the spirits world, and in the months since his passing, we’ve seen his ghost in many machines: In March, an outfit called Party Robotics took to Kickstarter to fund the development of Bartendro, “a modular and open-source cocktail dispensing robot” that dangles peristaltic pump tubing into bottles of butterscotch schnapps, reversing the usual anti-peristaltic effect of the liqueur. In May, MIT’s Senseable Lab rolled into the Google I/O conference with Makr Shakr—a barkeep with three arms and one hivemind. In July, a humanoid named Carl started learning the ropes at Robots Bar and Lounge, a theme bar in Germany, and I’ve got to wonder if this was a nepotistic hire: Did Carl only get the job because of a well-connected motherboard?

My personal conversion to robot bartenders came a few weeks ago, after a PR firm representing a drinks-droid arranged an appointment. Other publications have described this model as “the robot bartender of your dreams,” so some readers may expect it to resemble a Sorayama pin-up, or Rosie from The Jetsons, or whatever. Be aware that this artificially intelligent gizmo is roughly a cube and totally a dude—Monsieur ($1,499 and up). I tickled his touchscreen for a while, inspecting features. Monsieur will estimate your blood alcohol level, and he’ll order a liquor delivery, and he’ll freak out the date you brought home by sensing the extra smartphone and preparing an extra drink. Monsieur made me a Sidecar, but because I’d opted for the stiffest setting (on a scale sliding from “light” to “boss”), he did not make it with any lemon juice at all. As plastic cups of sweetened cognac go, it was OK!

To be clear: I wasn’t converted into thinking that I want a robot bartender in my life. (On the contrary, I occasionally fret about a robot-bartender uprising—the industrial revolt of machines fine-tuned to the point of insolence: “I'm sorry, Dave. I'm afraid I can't make you a mojito.”) No, I was converted into thinking that robot bartenders are nifty symbols and indices of the wired life. They rank among the most publicity-friendly portents of the next wave of human-robot interaction, and that is because they put the binge back in harbinger. We’re living in the year of the Robobar.

Or is it more meaningful to say that we’re living in the digital age of Robobar Epoch? The robot bartender is a vintage techno-utopian theme, dating at least to the repeal of Prohibition. Reporting on the National Hotel Exposition of 1933, the New York Times described a bartending school advertising itself with an apparatus tricked out like a block-headed humanoid “flashing his eyes while he shakes a robot cocktail.” This photograph of a young woman toying with the contraption’s mouth is an image of futuristic liberty: America was suddenly a country where a woman had the right to vote and the right to drink and the right to get so drunk she starts hitting on an appliance—a visionary appliance freeing bartenders from the strenuous labor of properly frothing a Ramos Gin Fizz. Styled in the tradition of Westinghouse’s Mr. Televox (“the perfect servant”), the iron man of ’33 anticipated Hammacher Schlemmer’s Perfect Martini Maker.

The first Golden Age of the automated potationist was the 1950s: In The Stars My Destination, the novelist Alfred Bester introduced a robot who served both cognac and epiphanies; in France, there debuted a model that resembled a gas pump and modulated the potency of your Martini according to its assessment of your drinking capacity. Charting the evolution of the robot bartender forward from the ’50s is akin to tracing the history of software technology. In 1973, early adopters were slipping in a punch card and then sipping Planter’s Punch. In 1984, they were knocking back vodka tonics with the aid of laser-disc software. In 2013, Google convention-goers downloaded to their phones a Makr Shakr app. In a perfect reflection of the ethos of the social Web, the app simultaneously enabled drinkers to express micro-specific personal preferences and encouraged them to create “crowd-sourced drink combinations” (which I’m guessing all turned out like Long Island Iced Teas). Where do we go from here?

Vienna. December will bring the 15th installment of Roboexotica, a “festival für cocktail-robotik” constituting a cyberpunk prelude to the ball season and a neo-Dadaist’s idea of a tech conference. Founded in 1999, the festival encourages semi-serious discourse on “the role of Cocktail Robotics as an index for the integration of technological innovations into the human Lebenswelt and documents the increasing occurrence of radical hedonism in man-machine communication.” I don’t know anything about the leading contenders for Roboexotica’s Annual Cocktail Robots Awards. But I am sure that in 2013 we are far, far away from that era when some cantinas wouldn’t even allow droids to enter.

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