A compact robot whirs and spins – its gaudy flashing lights cycling through the colors of rainbow. It sits patiently as you drop in a token. A wheel inside spins so that a beer is now accessible through an open hole at the top of the robot as it politely proffers you a bottle opener stuck at the end of its metallic arm.
As you sip your beer, you survey the room. This is the Cocktail Robot competition, a San Francisco event in which groups compete for a $1,000 grand prize.
On one end of the room, a few enthusiastic robot designers, wearing fezes and loose tropical-themed clothing, dance in a frenzied ceremonial dance as they cheer on their robot TikiTron, a volcano-shaped cocktail machine with flashing red eyes. The volcano screams as steam pours out of its top and spits out a cocktail into the cup placed into a gaping cave in its middle. To activate the fiery robot, you select the idol that represents your desired drink (pina colada, navy grog, mai tai, among many) and drop it in as a sacrifice. It’s well worth the bloodshed - TikiTron makes a mean cocktail.
And this is one among many. There is a Google Home device, that due to the background din, seemed largely apathetic to the questions from customers inquiring “what can you make me with… [insert name of spirit]?” but managed a sassy“I love you too” after an angry “fuck you make me a drink”. When she did finally create a drink, it was navy strong. A couple, clad in astronaut gear, introduce you to Sir Mix-a-Bot, a rocket-shaped setup that makes whisky sours, palomas, or a “wormhole effect” that randomly selects the spirit and the juice. Across the way, an impressive industrial assembly-line style cocktail machine, NEBREE8, squirts out measurements of ingredients down to the hundredth of a gram for a wide range of cocktails that can be ordered through its online app. This was last year’s winner.
Each robot is judged on four major criterion: style & grace, efficiency of intoxication (how tasty are the cocktails), full-assery (ability to work on its own), and “this will end badly” (a bonus point category for terrible ideas and “mad science”).
The fourth category seems fully embraced by a few groups. Interacting with one robot requires you to stand in a poncho with goggles, mouth agape as it calculates the distance and velocity at which to direct a jet of kamikaze at your mouth. It is surprisingly accurate, although most of the imbibers tend to recoil and close their mouth, ending up with a money shot of sticky kamikaze dripping down their face. Yet another team has a “shrodinger’s martini” setup in which the contraption is closed and selected at random, a gin or vermouth is added – thus arguably being in a superposition of both a wet and dry martini until the drink is tasted to collapse the wave function.
We left before the judging (our votes would have been with TikiTron), but as we were preparing to leave, a red blocky mini-fridge of a robot unceremoniously slams into us. “HERE!” yells the sauced robot designer in a straw cowboy hat. He gestured to the robot. “Wanna know what it makes?” We nod and hand him a token.
He gets to pouring from a tap located on the side of the robot. “Look up… watermelon lemon juice” he instructs. “Nature’s Viagra” declares Google.
“Here,” he says winking furiously, handing it over. “You’ll thank me. She's gonna thank me. You're welcome.”