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Sunday, October 23, 2011

Robots vs. Human Bartenders: the battle of the millennium!

The headline event for Saturday, the third evening of PDX Cocktail Week was dire: Robots vs. Human Bartenders.  That’s a title that summons the image of a sweaty John Henry in a torn wife-beater, coal-dust stained face dripping wet, holding a dented silver cocktail shaker.  The combat was staged at the Jupiter Hotel downtown, and combatants arrived from all over the country.  Some traveled in comfort, while others traveled in crates and had to be assembled here.  As a futurist, the Utah Mixologist can’t help but wonder: is this the future of the cocktail?  Robotic cocktail machines have been around for a while; human bartenders have been around for a lot longer.  Human bartenders make cocktails with care (most of them do, anyway) while Robot bartenders make them with precision (that’s the theory, anyway).  What is our goal? Quality or speed or both? These are deep issues, not to be trifled with.

There were three invaders from the future (and from the SFO area): Chassis, the drink serving robot (he’s available for parties), the Cosmobot Drinkbot (a.k.a. Lonestar One) built in the shape of a retro 1950’s rocket, and Drink Making Unit #2 (a.k.a. Short Circuit #2), a complex collection of beakers, pumps and test tubes.  Chassis was the only one with mobility, he could move around the room with a shaker full of ice in one hand and a stack of plastic cups in the other.  He was pre-loaded with a batch of Tequila Manhattans that flowed from a chrome spigot in the middle of his chest.  The Cosmobot Drinkbot, charged with dry ice, issued fog and three different cocktail recipes from the nozzle of his rocket (one of them a Cosmopolitan, of course).  DMU#2 was the most flexible recipe-wise, allowing you to select five ingredient units from a control panel (e.g. four parts Vodka and one part Vermouth) and then (after a wait) pouring them into your pre-positioned glass.

As the only robot with mobility, Chassis entered the arena (the stage) with three human bartenders.  The battle was won by Chassis, although one suspects that the judges chose him because he was the cutest!  This crop of robots is no threat to human bartenders in the short-term.  The long term future will be a different story.  Robots with mobility and manual dexterity will be able to make (not design) many cocktails as well as a human bartender when both speed and accuracy are considered.  Humans should hold the edge for artistry and entertainment value for a while after that, but commodity bartending, as well as many cooking jobs (fast food will be the first to go), will ultimately move into the robot domain.  Technologies at this early stage of development often appear ridiculous, but never confuse current appearance with long term potential…
For more images from Humans vs. Robots, see my slideshow on

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