Robot Bartenders: Open the Bottle and Pour, HAL
By Joni Blecher on November 21, 2014
By Joni Blecher
The word “bartender” tends to conjure up a certain image. Whether it’s Isaac from “The Love Boat,” Sam from “Cheers,” or Moe from “The Simpsons,” they pour you a drink while you pour your heart out.
And there’s something to be said for the perfect pour. Made correctly, a cocktail can leave a lasting impression. While today’s artisanal mixologists have reinvented classics like the Manhattan by adding inventive twists, not all bartenders can create the perfect cocktail every time they reach for a glass.
Enter technology: A handful of companies and inventors are developing drink-serving solutions that are one part robot, two parts artificial intelligence, and a dash of hacker ingenuity.
Shake, serve and repeat
The world’s first glimpse at what a fully automated bartender might look like came in 2013 at the Google I/O conference in San Francisco. Developed by researchers at the MIT Senseable City Lab in Cambridge, in collaboration with Coca-Cola and Bacardi, Makr Shakr sports three robotic arms and takes your custom drink order from a mobile app. It can prepare virtually unlimited drink combinations—complete with a garnish—delivered at a rate of about 120 per hour via magnetic conveyors.
The robot’s movements are modeled after the gestures of Roberto Bolle, principal dancer with the American Ballet Theatre, along with Italian director and choreographer Marco Pelle. Watching it at work can be downright mesmerizing.
The developers of Makr Shakr insist they’re not out to replace bartenders; instead they want to create a social experiment where people embrace digital manufacturing and share the experience with others. Like a particular cocktail you created using the app? Share the recipe with the world via social media.
Makr Shakr’s technology made its commercial debut this month at the “Bionic Bar” on Royal Caribbean’s Quantum of the Seas. Passengers place their orders from tablets at their table and watch as the robot prepares and serves their drinks. All that’s missing is Isaac’s signature grin-and-point.
Did you ever wish you had a personal bartender at home that would have a drink waiting for you when you walked in the door? That’s the idea behind Monsieur, a cocktail making machine that uses artificial intelligence to learn your drink palette and make recommendations. Created by two Georgia Tech alums, Barry Givens and Eric Williams, Monsieur is a drink-dispensing cube that measures roughly 20 inches on all sides with a 10-inch touchscreen display. It can hold up to eight bottles of liquid (alcohol and mixers) and make 150 drinks before needing a refill.
In addition to being able to make 300 different cocktails, what makes Monsieur innovative is its use of technology. Inside the device is a microcontroller that manages thermoelectric coolers, peristaltic pumps and sensors. Those sensors also alert you when the containers are running low. It can also connect to home networks (Wi-Fi, Bluetooth 4.0, or Zigbee) so it knows when you’re home and may be in need of a cocktail. And if you come home later than usual, Monsieur assumes you’ve had a long day at work and will offer you the choice of a double.
The machine has 12 different profiles (with 25 different cocktails) each based on a theme such as “Tiki Bar,” “Girl’s Night Out,” and “Sports Bar.” While drinks can be ordered directly from the display, they can also be ordered from a mobile app.
Not sure what to drink? Monsieur will make recommendations that are seasonal or based on time of day. And over time, as you order more drinks, Monsieur will learn your taste and provide more targeted choices. The mobile app will also keep track of how many drinks you’ve had, alert you when your blood alcohol is high, and even call a cab if needed.
Monsieur is priced at $3,999, but was sold out when this story was published. However, $5 gets your name on waiting list for when the next production run is ready.
Mission: Beer Control
If you’re don’t feel like a cocktail, maybe you’d prefer a cold beer? There’s a solution for that, too: It’s called Lagerbot. Engineers Mark Davis, Eric Erickson and Liz Martin share a co-working space in Eugene, OR and encountered a common problem that arises when there’s beer in the office—namely a keg that ran dry way too quickly.
“We had a kegerator and would pass around a hat for people to contribute to the keg. At the end of the week, we found the people who pitched in didn’t get their fair share of beer,” said Erickson.
The trio turned to technology to solve the problem and came up with the idea to build a box with an RFID meter and a tap that connected directly to the kegerator. People in the office would need an RFID tag to get their share of beer. “We went from whiteboard to pitching in front of an audience at The Pitch Competition in 48 hours,” said Davis. Thus, the Lagerbot was born.
With it’s wooden case and plastic front, Lagerbot looks a lot like a 1970s stereo speaker with a tap. There are also programmable LED lights on the front that appear in the form of eyes and a mouth. That’s how you know it’s activated. “People stare at Lagerbot for awhile and when it winks, they get all giddy,” said Davis.
Lagerbot can do more than just deliver the perfect pour. The box also has a flow meter, a flow servo, and Wi-Fi that’s used to connect to a database. In addition to limiting the amount of beer a particular person can consume or how much beer is poured (it can track volume down to the milliliter), it can also monitor all types of data. If there were one or more Lagerbots set up at a single location, you could track which beers were served and in what order. For example, you might discover the majority of people drank a pale ale before having a porter. Currently, that type of data isn’t easy to track. Users could also use the ID number on their RFID tag to log onto a website to see what and how much they’ve had to drink. “People can also find out how much is left in their keg and get an alert when the keg is getting low, so less time to switch it,” said Martin.
Development is still in the early stages, but there are a few units completed that the trio take to events like Maker Faire and beer festivals.
These drink dispensing devices sound like something out of a Philip K. Dick novel, but they very well may be the bartender of the future. Still, there’s something to be said for pulling up a stool and shooting the breeze at the kind of place where everybody knows you name.
Joni Blecher is a freelance writer who has spent her career covering tech and a myriad of lifestyle topics. When she’s not writing, you can find her exploring the food scene in Portland, OR.
Makr Shakr: Project concept and design by MIT Senseable City Lab; Implementation by carlorattiassociati | walter nicolino & carlo ratti; Main partners - Coca-Cola and Barcardi. Technical partners - Kuka, Pentagram, SuperUber; Media partners - Domus, Wired; Videos by MyBossWas; Event in collaboration with Meet the Media Guru, and endorsed by: Comune di Milano, World Expo Milano 2015 – Energy for Life. Feeding the Planet. Full credits available at www.makrshakr.com