Booze in the age of the robot barman

06 September 2017 - 06:56 By AFP
Image: iStock

As Tipsy unfolds an arm to select a glass, retrieve ice and mix a drink, it's all a far cry from the flashy swagger of Tom Cruise in Cocktail.

But then he doesn't have the twinkle in his eye of a fictional Hollywood bartender - or any eyes at all, for that matter - because Tipsy is a robot that mixes a mean Bloody Mary for its customers at a bar in Las Vegas.

"This is the future," says Las Vegas resident Mauricio Letona - but not everyone is sold on it. French tourist Antoine Ferrari thinks it is "cooler to have a drink when there is someone behind the bar", although he acknowledges the novelty of a "slightly futuristic" drinking experience.

Italian Rino Armeni, president of Robotic Innovations and owner of the bar in which Tipsy works, is conscious of the imperative to retain the human element of going for a drink.

"The first thing I told my staff when we opened, was: 'Look, remember: these robots are entertainers, but people will come back because of you'."

Experts expect jobs to disappear as this latest front opens in the race for automation, but say there is little chance that the trendy, tattooed mixologist will ever be a relic of the past.

"The bartender has numerous tasks: chat to clients, decide when to not serve them more drinks, make sure they don't reach over the bar and steal bottles or drinks, collect payment and give back change," says Michael Dyer, emeritus professor of computer science at the University of California in Los Angeles.

Androids can perform few of these tasks to a human level of competence, so choosing whether to automate will always be a question of balancing the costs and benefits.

A machine may cost a one-off R1.3-million to perform just one limited task while a human barman might cost R388000 a year but offer a much wider range of skills, he argues.

"There will be situations where using these robots will increase the quality of service, in a busy, noisy environment, for example," says Pamela Rutledge, an expert in media psychology. But she says being acknowledged by the staff "creates a kind of social connection, it makes you feel like you belong."