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Robot! Another Round of Martinis!

Robot bartenders are here, and are a terrible idea for humanity
A robotic bar system prepares drinks in Romania. | Photo: Shutterstock

By Troy Johnson

I couldn’t shake the news, so here we are.

It was about a new kind of bartender. A super bartender. A fully autonomous robotic bartender.

The robotender will be rolled out in airport bars in Paris and Amsterdam. It can make drinks at cable-modem speed, reduce wait times, and even interact with guests. I feel as if I was driving my horse and buggy down Main Street in 1906, and my horse was blindsided by the first Ford Model T.

Rest in peace, Streetbiscuit.

I’m not anti-technology. I depend on it, and use it sometimes obsessively. But this was different. I was troubled when a Pasadena restaurant started using a robot that can flip burgers faster than humans, costing a few line cooks jobs. I’d been concerned with iPads and kiosks replacing servers. But the robotender especially jarred me, as someone who studies food, particularly restaurant and bar culture. It feels like the machines have reached the final, and most crucial, line of human defense in the hospitality industry.

There are certain industries where the appeal and value depends entirely on human interaction: massage therapy, psychology, nursing, childcare, grade school education, bars and restaurants. But, aside from childcare and grade school education, very few human-dependent industries affect our daily routine as much as the restaurant and bar industry does. And within this industry, certain jobs are more personality- and human-dependent than others. I’d argue the bartender is chief among them.

It’s pretty easy to make a case that the bartender is the most socially important employee. You rarely go sit at a table in a dining room and converse at length with your server, no matter how awesome they are or how empty the restaurant may be. Servers have more places to hide. They also have other tables. And they have side work to do, the station for which is not next to your table. But at a bar, you sit facing the restaurant’s most personable human, chosen specifically for their ability to interact with customers (and make quality drinks in an expedient manner). Their side work is right in front of you. They are trapped into a state of constant human communication.

Upon reading about the robotender, I initially wrote a scathing, emotional piece that the editors of this good magazine rejected, and rightly so. I nearly let it go and moved on with my life. But the idea sat with me, gnawed at me, and I had to explore why negroni-making bots disturbed me so much.

I think I’ve gotten to the center of it. I’m not mentioning the name of the company here. The founder is an entrepreneur who’s worked very hard and very long with various universities to realize his dream. No one benefits from publicly smashing him before he gets off the ground (though I doubt this essay could stop him, since bots are the future). But I do feel the need to speak of the concept in general, ominous terms. I’m not the first to ring this bell of caution for this industry, nor for other industries facing the same issue. But I shouldn’t be the last, either.

There are currently few places in America, if not on earth (Instagramming from your safari?), where we put down our smartphones and only interact with other human beings. Restaurants and bars are among the final sanctuaries of face-to-face humanity. In very few other retail environments do you spend an hour or two conversing with the employee.

Plus, few other businesses are as social and as active in encouraging and facilitating human interaction. Speed-dating, maybe. Or Tinder, although Tinder users spend much of their time interacting with the app, not the human. Bars’ purpose is social interaction—not making drinks.

The company claims their robotender is a ‘support staff’ for humans. But Brutus started as the support staff for Caesar.

There’s a very good reason bartenders have been cast as everyday psychologists for centuries. They’re human, and always there, waiting for us at the same place, available to us anytime we need (with a responsibility break from 2 a.m. to 6 a.m., depending on local laws).

The bartender is a crucial ambassador for human-to-human interaction. Most people, if not all, go to a bar to interact with other people and meet new ones. If the speed and quality of the mai tai was the most important thing, we’d go to the bar alone and not speak to anyone. Or we’d just make an equally good mai tai at home. Drinking at home alone can lead to furniture stains and/or becoming the Unabomber.

I understand why this robotender company is launching in airports. People would revolt and set things on fire if one replaced your local bistro’s friendly barkeep. Airports already lack humanity. Many of us try to avoid humans before our flight, where we’ll be piled top of another. The airport is a no-man’s land between two places you want to be. Simply by comparative negation, it’s psychological purgatory. It’s the dead space between two dreams.

That’s why very few people hang out at airports in their free time. There’s no emotional attachment to the place, or the people who work there. Barring love at first sight, strong human bonds are rarely formed in transit.

Yet that may be exactly the reason you don’t want to remove the last few remaining heartbeats from the staff at JFK or the Charles de Gaulle airport. People often fly alone. Airport bartenders have an especially heavy and important societal burden: to talk, to chit-chat, to tell a joke to a lonely traveler. They’re a life preserver in this dead sea of humanity.

Yes, the wait for a Jack and Coke at Terminal 2 is often long. That’s because airports are the one place on earth, besides church, where it’s socially permissible, even encouraged, to have a drink before noon. Because we’re in purgatory and miserable and our legs hurt and that $9 trail mix didn’t fill our temporary emotional void. With that in mind, trading humans for robots in an effort to get travelers their booze in a more expedient manner doesn’t seem the healthiest choice for the mental state of the airport’s customer base.

Given an option of three bourbons and zero humanity, or one bourbon and a decent person to talk to if I so choose (I can always put my headphones on and opt out, but I would like the choice), I’ll gladly take my one Woodford neat, please.

Depression is on the rise in America, as are mass shootings and violence. Philosophers have tried to explain the sources of our modern malaise. Though there are many theories (and I’m admittedly choosing the ones that prove my point), two have always resonated with me:

1) We’re disconnected from nature. The scientific name for this is biophilia, first introduced by Eric Fromm and further developed by Edward O. Wilson. For millions of years we ran on dirt in the wide open air in our near-nakedness, chasing wildlife with the help of other humans. Most of us now go from one artificially lit box (home) to another (work, grocery store, retailer, whatever) and occasionally make it out into nature despite 99.9 percent of our evolutionary DNA being coded to thrive in a natural setting. So we simply need more sun and dirt and flowers and humans to satisfy that ancient craving. And we’re not getting that in modern America.

2) Technology has socially disconnected us from one another. Hard to pinpoint one study or philosopher/psychologist on this one. Thousands of studies suggest this is true. Apes are social creatures. We evolved from apes. We need social interaction to thrive as a species. Our happiness depends on human connection. And we’ve moved into a virtual reality where we socialize primarily through digital screens. For all its benefits (I see it’s your birthday next Tuesday), social media is not quality human interaction. There is no eye contact, no sense memory, no shaking hands or back slapping or human touch of any kind. We get that kind of human interaction at church, farmers markets, hair salons, sporting events, and concerts. But, most commonly on a weekly or even daily basis, Americans get those at coffee shops, restaurants, and bars. Since our retail experience has already been depleted of human interaction (your Amazon box is on your doorstep), coffee shops, bars, and restaurants are one of the last public American spaces where we habitually, regularly convene face to face.

Granted, one could also say that alcohol itself is a source of the American Sads. But I’d say getting a cocktail from a robot is far more sad than getting one from a human being.

I’m sure this new robotender can make drinks faster than a human. Maybe even better. And I’m sure it will reduce my wait time and would save small restaurant and bar owners money they’d have to pay human beings (wages, taxes, benefits, insurance, etc). It’s getting tougher economically to afford human labor—in restaurants, especially, which have infamously small profit margins.

If you’re going to a bar merely for “expedited delivery of maximum alcohol to the human system,” I think you may be missing the deeper meaning of the bar experience. If bar customers didn’t want the talk, the laughter, the flirtation, and the humaning, they would simply create one-person happy hours in the comfort of their own home. The simple fact that they’re showing up to a bar proves they’re craving interaction and sociability. Aside from the initial lure of novelty, I highly doubt humans, in the long run, would choose a bar because their robot made a much faster cocktail.

Bars are also alternative living rooms for those who are displaced, whether temporarily or long-term. In a strange town for a business trip, the bartender is your social concierge, a friend to borrow for an hour. Many elderly widows and widowers, having lost many of their friends and now their partners, show up for regular meals and drinks just for some human connection. The worst thing about elderly life in America is the isolation, and bars and churches often shield our elders from that misery.

The idea gnawed at me, and I had to explore why negroni-making bots disturbed me so much.

I’m fine if a robot makes my coffee at home, or vacuums my place, or plays my music in my car. But certain jobs require human TLC. Take the medical field, for instance. I might actually prefer a robot perform surgery on my vital organs, but I’d like a human nurse to comfort me through the recovery process. Hair stylists have long been a key human social outlet for people, a valued one-on-one, intimate conversation. When it comes to education, computers and apps are excellent learning tools for adults. But as a father, I’d like another responsible human being looking over my child. I don’t want a robot teaching my kid math—math is already inhuman enough. I think people at Sunday mass would feel a touch odd, if not vaguely atheistic, receiving spiritual advice and insight from a machine.

The automation movement is here. There is no stopping it. But maybe we should designate a few professions no-bot zones, at least for the interim. Maybe we (dear God, not the government) can come together and develop some sort of human quota for various industries. We have to believe that human beings offer something unique.

What’s that you ask?

I think we can answer that question by gauging our gut reactions to a few baseline test scenarios:

First, would you rather fall in love with a human, knowing you could be hurt and disappointed and they’re imperfect or would you rather fall in love with a robot, knowing it would never forget important life moments, lie, cheat, or commit any other human shortcoming due to the flawlessness of its programming?

What about at a homeless shelter? I’m sure we’d be able to feed and care for many more homeless citizens in a more efficient manner using robots. But that segment of our population is already living a life of loneliness and social ostracization. Would they be better off getting hot soup and medical assistance quicker, or getting a few minutes of human connection along with their minestrone?

And babysitting. A robotic babysitter would never get distracted from childcare while texting or checking social media. It wouldn’t drink on the job or steal. Would you prefer that perfection over a human caring for your child in your absence?

For me, the answer in all of these cases is humans. It’s not so hard for us to fathom that there’s a distinct, special, emotionally fulfilling advantage to human interaction over robot-human interaction. So, in any profession considering replacing humans with bots, that must be taken into consideration.

There are places where efficiency and speed are the most important factors. Bars and restaurants aren’t those places. The company may claim this robotender is a “support staff” for the humans. But takeovers always start as support staff. Brutus started as the support staff for Caesar.

With a robot as a bartender, no matter how pretty or novel the establishment, it’s nothing more than a walk-in vending machine.

Sorry, Robotender. I’ll wait for John, the slower inefficient human, to make my drink.

Robot! Another Round of Martinis!

A robotic bar system prepares drinks in Romania. | Photo: Shutterstock

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