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?

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.

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.”