BarBot 2011 So Did Not Compute

Andy Gustin
Science geeks tinkering with wires wasn't exactly what we expected from a night devoted to robot bartenders.
​You bring certain expectations to an evening that promises all-robot bartenders. You expect the crowd to be bro heavy, with a half-techie, half-frat demographic. You expect sassy bots to be juggling glasses, mincing around, and making the bar erupt with predictable laughter. You even expect a little abject terror, because you know what robots are capable of (see this, and this). Sadly, Friday's BarBot 2011 in SOMA inspired very little fear, or mirth, or even much of a buzz.

The problem rested largely on the definition of "robot." Yes technically, a robot only has to be "a device that automatically performs complicated often repetitive tasks" but at an event like BarBot we were hoping for the zippier definition: "a machine that looks like a human being and performs various complex acts (as walking or talking) of a human being." After all, these robots were supposed to replace bartenders. Was it too much to ask that they gave some banter? That they performed a bit of fancy drink dancing, a la Cocktail ? That they had something that resembled a face, or arms?

For the most part, BarBot's robots seemed like they were replacing the blender, rather than the bartender. There were pumps and cooling systems and state-of-the-art hydraulics. There were overwrought systems of pouring and mixing that would have made Rube Goldberg proud. Most strove for a bit of whimsy, with dry ice and rocket ships and colored lights. But despite the gloss, the entries felt crude and flat, with lots of whirring and buzzing and waiting around. There wasn't nearly enough fun in these lifeless machines to make it worth a half hour-plus per drink.

Andy Gustin
The closest thing BarBot 2011 managed to produce by way of robots: a sort of Rock 'Em Sock 'Em butler.
​The sole humanoid bot was a little plastic dude on wheels whose only function was to deliver one drink at a time on a little tray. He was a crude, childish prototype, something you might have found at Kay-Bee Toys in the '80s: Robot Butler! He also ran over our foot and spilled vodka on our knee. We weren't mad at the little guy; just disappointed.

After hours of waiting earned us one precise but half-sized martini, a Cosmo inadvisably made with Red Bull, and a vodka-soaked leg, SFoodie proceeded to the event's only human-operated bar. The lively trio there, straight off the Burning Man bus, made us a miserable gin and tonic in a plastic cup with no lime or ice, using club soda instead of tonic. (The irony of flawed human bartenders was not lost on us.) We decided to pack it in.

At the end of the night, we may have once again been victims of childish hopes and dreams (see: carnival fantasies). SFoodie expected a legion of wise-cracking droids serving up a taste of the future. Instead, we got a fifth-grade science fair. But while we sulked and glowered, nursing our warm gin and soda, everyone else seemed happy to be out on the town, doing something weird.

Perhaps the lesson here is to start lowering expectations.

New York refugee Jesse Hirsch tweets at @Jesse_Hirsch. Follow SFoodie at @sfoodie, and like us on Facebook.

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I guess the participants should be flattered that the general public assumed they all have a staff of minions and $1 million in pocket change to create ASIMO bartenders. But if you've got the talent to look up "robot" in the dictionary and type complete sentences you're certainly entitled to judge. Thanks to everyone who was happy to pay for a warm gin and soda delivered in a weird way. Your funding will be used to advance the event closer to your expectations.

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