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Robots Can Mix You a Drink. But Will They Listen to Your Problems?

Robots Can Mix You a Drink. But Will They Listen to Your Problems?

By TIMOTHY AEPPEL

The Makr Shakr, a bartending robot, is the creation of an Italian company and consists of robotic arms that mix cocktails, then place them on a conveyor belt to be carried across the bar to the waiting customer or a server.

Robots aren’t about to elbow bartenders out of a job.

But versions of them could start showing up at your favorite watering holes. Indeed,some are already out there.

The Makr Shakr is the creation of an Italian company and consists of robotic arms that mix cocktails, and then place them on a conveyor belt to be carried across the bar to the waiting customer or a server. The first two installations are on Royal Caribbean cruise ships, where they’re the centerpieces of “Bionic Bars.”

The goal isn’t to do away with bartenders, who are still needed to tend the machines and, when necessary, deliver the drinks. Carlo Ratti, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and cofounder of Makr Shakr, says the project began when he was asked to design a machine that would allow people to interact with robots in an unexpected setting. “It started as something to shock people in a tangible way,” he says, to show them “what the third industrial revolution is all about.”

Another example is the “Bartendro,” a box with hoses and flashing lights that can mix an array of drinks—but it too needs to be tended by a human, who among other things puts the glass into position under the pour spout and then delivers the drink to the customer.

Machines like these are designed to work alongside humans, not replace them.

But just because something can be automated doesn’t mean it should be. At Tryst, a Denver bar that bought one of the $2,500 Bartendros through a Kickstarter campaign last year, the verdict is clear: It’s an oddity people quickly lost interest in after a few months. “Visually, it’s eye-catching,” said human bartender Richie Hadley. “But on a busy night, will we use it? Not at all, unless someone asks about it.”

Another machine is aimed at the self-service and home market. The Monsieur was created by a team of engineers from Georgia Tech after a frustrating night watching basketball finals in a crowded restaurant. “It wasn’t until halftime that we got our first drink,” says Donald Beamer, the company president. “As engineers, we saw there was a problem.” Automation speeds up assembly lines, so why not use it to accelerate cocktail making?

Mr. Beamer’s device comes in two versions—a table-top model that sells for just under $4,000 and a $10,000 kiosk that looks like a Coke machine. The kiosk has a cup dispenser and ice reservoir. The idea is to “offer self-service” in places that might not otherwise have a bar, he says.

Still, MIT professor Scott Stern, who studies the diffusion of new technology, is among those who doubt bartending machines have a big future. “When I’m in a different city, having a drink of wine at a bar, I don’t want to talk to a robot,” he says.

But while bartending jobs may be safe, many others are at risk.  Even some technology entrepreneurs like Bill Gates are worried about what a surge of automation could mean for the future of work. Those worries have been magnified by the slow recovery of the job market after the last recession.

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