Robotic Bartender Sheds Light on How to Get a Drink

It’s one of life’s mysteries. How do you get served quickly at a crowded bar?

That’s the question a team of roboticists and cognitive scientists in Germany, Scotland and Greece asked themselves while designing a one-armed robotic bartender named James.

In actuality, James—short for Joint Action in Multimodal Embodied Systems—doesn’t look much like a bartender. He has no legs and his face is a computer screen. His arm and hand are oversized and clumsy looking. Still, he’ll give you beer if you ask him the right way. And there’s the crux of this study – asking the right way.

James in programmed to react to customers in the same way a bartender would. To do this, the research team went out to nightclubs in both Germany and Scotland and filmed how real bartenders interact with patrons, and then set about teaching James to respond in a similar fashion.

For a robot, this is a pretty complex task. Responding to social cues and body language is something humans do almost without thinking, but James had to learn from scratch how to recognize behaviors and respond appropriately. For instance, in a crowded bar setting, he has to distinguish which people actually want a drink and which are merely standing around socializing.

Teaching robots social skills is a passion for Jan de Ruiter, one of the lead researchers on the project. For him the applications are endless. He hopes to expand the project into other occupations, including receptionists and shopkeepers, to see if robots can begin to mimic the social dynamics in those settings. More advanced James prototypes could also be used in the medical industry, or as home aids.

James isn’t the first robotic bartender in the world. Back in 2008 Asahi Beer debuted the Mr. Asahi bot, which was installed in Selfridges in the UK, and is able to serve customers in less than two minutes.

Will James be seen in bars and grocery stores any time soon? Probably not, says de Ruiter.

Programing a social robot takes time, and James is pretty limited. He can’t open you that bottle of beer, and apart from greeting thirsty visitors with, “Hello old lad!” and responding evasively to questions about his age, he’s not much of a conversationalist either.

Now back to that original question: What is the best way to get a drink in a crowed bar?

According to the researches, frantic hand gestures and money waving won’t do the trick. The best way to get a bartender’s attention is to stand directly in front of him and make eye contact.

Now you know.

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