Your Friendly Neighborhood (Robot) Bartender

Robot bartenders pour great drinks as CIO.com blogger Bill Snyder enjoys a night of tech and cocktails.

I'm a card-carrying reporter of the old school, and as such it's my professional duty to have a drink (or two) now and then. Sometimes I drink at home, sometimes at my local bar, where I’m happy to schmooze with the man or woman behind the mahogany.

But in all my years of drinking, I’ve never had one poured by a collection of circuit boards, microcontrollers, servo motors and plastic tubing, which is to say, a robot.

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Last week, a group of very clever folks got together in an art gallery in San Francisco’s SOMA district and showed off a collection of robot bartenders. No, there’s wasn’t a humanoid-like C3PO making cocktails and chatting up the customers. Robotics hasn’t advanced that far. But there was a collection of automated drink makers that put together a mean cosmopolitan, of which I had several, but only in the interests of reporting.

The one robot that looked a bit like the ones you'd see in old SciFi moves, couldn’t mix a drink, but he was happy to dispense a shot of bourbon (see left).

Many of the devices looked a bit retro, or even steam punkish, and in that spirit many of the inventors were in Victorian-era garb. Although the focus was on alcoholic beverages, Katherine Becvar, an Oakland librarian and seamstress created "The Tea Engine," which poured a variety of styles of tea, which you could choose by using an old fashion telephone dialer that has a programmable microcontroller inside. As I said, clever people.

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One of the entries in BarBot 2013 was ShakeBot, a bartender robot that pees in the ingredients for a Manhattan, or any 3-ingredient cocktail (see above). It uses tiny versions of the Belgian statue "Manneken Pis" to whiz the booze into a central container which then gets shook up with LED ice cubes. I didn’t taste this one.

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By and large, the drinks were mixed more or less correctly and were about the right strength.

My favorite was the ThinBot, named after the cocktail-loving detective Nick Charles of Thin Man fame. It's creator, Kevin Roche (pictured to the right), who styles himself a brigadier general and "diplomatic attaché to the Ministry of Gin," has a day job as an engineer with IBM Research. The ThinBot can whip up any of 16 cocktails made with a combination of eight ingredients. Darn tasty.

Barbot is an annual event. This year it was a fundraiser for "RoboGames: The Olympics of Robots," which will be held in April in San Mateo, California. If they’re pouring drinks, I'll be there.

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