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These Robots Serve Up Cocktails, but Can They Tell If You've Drunk Too Much?

04/20/2015 | 08:29pm US/Eastern
By Timothy Aeppel And Alistair Barr 

SAN MATEO, Calif.--Some robots assemble cars or iPhones. Others vacuum floors or roam Amazon.com warehouses. The four-foot-tall ThinBot, with its flashing lights and blue chilling-chamber, makes a mean cosmopolitan and 16 other cocktails.

"Most bartending robots are dispensing-machines. I wanted to make mine more than that," said ThinBot co-creator Kevin Roche, a 54-year-old International Business Machines Corp. research scientist who sported a "Make Drinks Not War" T-shirt at a recent RoboGames competition.

Cocktail robots, as they're also known, were just one category vying in the "Olympics of Robots," a competition better known for machines that can tear each other's heads off.

The bartending niche is more delicate, but it does break into two feuding camps.

On one side are the mavericks like Mr. Roche who see these machines more as performance art, profit be damned. On the other side are the pragmatists and would-be tech moguls who see robot bartenders as the next big thing--if only they can work out the kinks, of which there are many.

Can a robot card someone? Can it wipe down the bar? Can it commiserate with a jilted boyfriend? And what happens when liquor and juices gunk up the hoses--the bête noire of all cocktail machines?

Royal Caribbean last year unveiled a robot bartender on its new tech-theme cruise ship Quantum of the Seas, and several companies have sprung up to market other versions. So the barriers aren't insurmountable.

The Monsieur, developed by a team of Georgia Tech graduates inspired after they felt they had waited too long for drinks at an Atlanta Applebee's, plans to unveil 10 of its tabletop devices at the Kentucky Derby in May.

"It's like a Keurig for liquor," said company president Donald Beamer, noting that the machines--which sell for $3,999--will be positioned in premium seating areas that previously had self-service bars. Traditionalists shouldn't fret: The robots will offer mint juleps.

Bill Sherman, creator of the Elixirator, sniffs at such base practicality.

His machine, which also competed in the RoboGames, is made of wood, decorated with plastic crystals and a fake flame "to give it that Jules Verne, steampunk, 19th century sci-fi feel," said the 62-year-old electronics engineer from Hayward, Calif. It makes four straight liquor drinks and six cocktails including a cactus needle and a Russian orange.

When he is out with the Elixirator, Mr. Sherman transforms himself into Dr. Hadacoff, an inventor from the future who became stranded in the 19th century and wears a top hat, morning suit and cravat.

Mr. Sherman and others in the artiste camp dismiss efforts to build commercial machines. He said it is too difficult and time-consuming to develop a robot capable of performing most of the tasks human bartenders do. The Elixirator requires Mr. Sherman to transfer liquor from the original bottles into wine bottles which is all that will fit in the machine.

"A robot is not going to know you've drunk too much," he said.

Samuel Coniglio, creator of CosmoBot, a pressurized, rocket-shaped device with a large red start button that releases steam, calls the commercial variety "ugly boxes," because they must be designed generically to be made in volume and suit many different customers.

Cocktail robot competitions began more than a decade ago in Europe, where dispensing alcohol from machines is more accepted. An artists' cooperative in Vienna has held annual competitions since 1999.

Aaron Muszalski, an American artist and tech entrepreneur from San Francisco, has competed in Vienna four times, once with the Stigmatabot, a life-size metal robot that dispensed wine from a spout in its torso. That machine was bought by a collector in Austria, who now displays it in his home.

"There's always a prize category for robots that are designed to replace bartenders--but that category is the least interesting...and most openly scorned," said Mr. Muszalski.

Whitney Deatherage, an American who helped organize the Vienna event in December, ticks off some of the odder machines. High on her list was the Fairy Juicer, a glass box that appeared to have a green fairy fluttering around inside. As you turned a crank, it would start to scream in a high-pitched voice and appear to be squashed as a shot of green absinthe trickled into a glass.

Many of these contraptions, said Ms. Deatherage, "aren't aimed at commercialization."

Unlike combat robots, which attract thousands of enthusiasts, bartending has a small but devoted following. "I've made bartending robots myself," said David Calkins, an organizer of RoboGames who is also president of the Robotics Society of America, noting that the difficulty in getting the machines to work is part of the attraction.

"If it was easy, we'd all have C-3PO bringing us a cocktail when we walk through the door," he said, referring to the golden robot from Star Wars.

Travis Deyle, a Silicon Valley-based roboticist, built one as his senior thesis project at the University of Nebraska and knows lots of others who dabble in the specialty. "It's a classic nerd project to build a booze-mixing robot," he said. But at the end of the day, they aren't very practical.

Back at the competition, some purists quibbled over whether some of the machines should even be called robots.

Paul Ventimiglia, a 28-year-old robotics engineer, showed off "Outta Time," a machine with an arm that grabs a glass and brings it under the right combination of liquor-carrying jars that light up in different colors as they dispense alcohol.

"I don't care for this one over there," said Mr. Ventimiglia, gesturing toward Mr. Sherman's Elixirator, which he argued wasn't really a robot because of a lack of moving parts and the limited variety of cocktails it could make.

"We're all doing it for art, but some barbots, all they do is spit liquor into a cup," said Mr. Ventimiglia. "What makes it a robot?" If it doesn't move, he said, "it's just a vending machine."

Mr. Sherman would have none of it. The Elixirator, he pointed out, does have some moving parts. Besides, he defines a robot as any machine that does a menial human task.

At the end of the day, the more practical side prevailed.

Mr. Ventimiglia's machine took silver. ThinBot won gold. The Elixirator didn't place.

Write to Timothy Aeppel at timothy.aeppel@wsj.com and Alistair Barr at alistair.barr@wsj.com

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