Sunday, 30 August 2015

In The Future, There Will Be Robots

"Are you being served, mate?" asks the bartender. Its voice is mundanity and averageness forged into a sound; words spoken in a Nowhere accent, understandable to any English speaker yet totally removed from any natural accent. Perfect synthetic dullness.

The robot calls me "mate" because it's analysed my body mass, height and stance. It processed my gait as I approached and knows without a doubt that I'm male. A bartender in a fancier joint would call me "sir".

I order a drink and the bartender pours it for me. It looks down at the tap as it pours, and I know this is all for show, coded into its soul to make it look a little more human. It doesn't need to see what it's doing. It could pour a beer blindfolded. Its ancestral prototype probably did back when they were trying to sell it to the hospitality industry.

It asks me if that's everything. As I hand over my cash it quickly and internally checks Accuweather, and asks me if it's still raining out there, as if it's a flesh and blood thing concerned about finishing its shift and stepping out into the wet. As if it ever leaves the bar. As if it won't eventually die here, switched off and shipped out in a box when the new models roll out.

As if it cares.

Robot bartenders. Like robot butlers, robot taxi drivers, those skull-faced robot doctors from Star Wars and robot cops from that film whose name I can't think of right now, these automated sud-slingers have long been predicted by science fiction. They're a bit scary to some. From the pages of our books and the flickering surfaces of our screens they loom out and threaten to take away what we hold dear. Craic with a friendly barkeep, an open ear to take in our worries as they let our pint settle, a laugh and a joke and a hearty recommendation for the guest beer, even if it is just read from the back of the pumpclip.

My colleague Craig Heap wrote an excellent piece on the automation and roboticisation of the workplace, and the effect it could have on the beer industry, and on reading it I realised that I couldn't pass up the chance to leapfrog on this concept and interview my old friend and leading artificial intelligence expert, teaching fellow of Newcastle University and author of numerous papers on AI, Dr. William Blewitt, on what a future filled with robot barmen and women would be like.

So that's just what I did. Over several beers.

It was time to get a glimpse into the future, however dark it might be.

Automation in the hospitality industry, and specifically in pubs, isn't all that new of a concept, he tells me. He raises that point that the queue and hotplates system of a Toby Carvery is a semi-automated process, making use of the bare minimum amount of human staff. Self service taps for bottomless soft drinks are already commonplace, and these are a step towards the concept of an automated bartender. He is unsurprised when I tell him that there are already pubs in the UK boasting self-service craft beer taps.

It was time to ask the question on which the interview would hinge. Would we ever get robot bartenders like in the pictures painted by speculative fiction? I discussed with him the state of play in the world of robotics, and just how far along the technology to create humanoid robots was. Will our beers ever be poured by an android?

No, was his answer,

"It's something you may see happen in Japan, where attitudes to robotics are different, especially regarding aesthetics. Elsewhere we would apply Occam's Razor to the concept, and simplify it."

A robotic bartender, he tells me, would be more of a static drinks dispenser than anything.

The scary, or perhaps kind of cool, images of android or gynoid bar staff pouring drinks are dispelled by the clear picture of a big box that dispenses alcohol. It's not very sexy, and certainly doesn't jive well with any shiny images of a cyberpunk future noir.

I don't know what to make of the (quite expected, really) revelation that a synthetic, human-ish bar-bot would be prohibitively expensive, and quickly move on to the duties of bar staff beyond pouring drinks.

I raise the issue of checking whether or not a punter is of legal drinking age. This, the doctor tells me, would be easiest handled by the drinks dispenser (I'm finding it tough to call it a "robot" now) featuring the capability to scan a biometric ID card and check that it jives with the human using it. Already this adds an air of grim functionality to the idea of buying drinks from the machine that's been brought in to replace the barkeep. Humans don't like showing their ID, generally. Unless the machine had the capability to recognise drinkers returning to the bar for another, the presentation of the ID card may be required again and again. Already the drinking experience seems much more dehumanised than it would be by a droid in an ill fitting shirt and tie working the taps at our local pub.

Checking for identification isn't the only gatekeeper duty carried out by bar staff, of course. It's illegal to sell alcohol to a drunk person in the United Kingdom, so how would a bar-bot deal with this, I ask.

The drinks robot could present the would-be drinker with a skill test, he tells me. Perhaps a test of hand/eye coordination to ensure the person is sober enough to receive a glass of intoxicating liquid.

We already have apps that present the user with a skill challenge in order to stop them drunk-dialing people. The technology is already well-entrenched and would fit easily into the mechanisms of roboticising bar work.

So, adding to the grind of potentially swiping our ID through a slot frequently (or at least once) to get a drink, we have the double grind of being faced with a quick maths quiz or a timed connect-the-dots game before our beer is poured out, should the algorithms in the machine's brain deem it necessary. Once again, the future of robot bartending is looking pretty dark.

And how about chat, I ask? How about chit-chat and banter and, in the words of Robert Rankin, "talking toot with the barman"?

"There are plenty of online chat-bots that can pass the Turing Test [the test to determine if a machine can "pass" as a human, in simple terms], and I could write a bot easily that could discuss the current state of Newcastle United."

We explore this, as I mentally add a little keyboard and screen to the drinks machine so that down-on-their-luckers can type "mate, my wife just left me" and the bot can respond "Jesus, I'm sorry mate".

There's a general agreement that this function wouldn't really have a place in the Bar Of The Future that we are spitballing over an increasing amount of empty bottles. It's hard to imagine people wanting to talk rubbish with a drinks machine, and I quickly dismantle the communication peripherals from the beerdroid.

Added to the future scenes that we envisage, then, is the unresponsive, uninterested drinks dispenser robot. It's looking more and more like the bartender of the future will be a tap in the wall, with a few scanners attached to it.

At this point, it's time to look at the things that we expect from bar staff. The cliched image of the broken man drowning his sorrows in a pint glass as his relationship crumbles, passing it back to the bartender after a few sips and saying "put a shot of whiskey in there, mate" is cheesy beyond measure, and I don't remember the last time I told a bartender how bad I was feeling. But friendly chat and smalltalk, even if it's incredibly vague, is certainly a humanising factor in buying a drink. A laugh shared as the bartender asks if you're planning to drink every beer they have on the bar, a fleeting comment about how dead business is tonight, or cookie-cutter white noise about how the weather is are all comforting, especially when you imagine that the future's alternative might be silent interaction with a nozzle attached to multiple sensory devices.

To get asked for identification can be a grind, and some people get really offended by it. But again it's human interaction, the exchange of words with another breathing thing.

And how often have you seen anyone be cut off by a bartender, outside of films? Refusing to serve someone for being too drunk is relatively rare, I think, as far as the nightly duties of a bartender are concerned.

Nevertheless, there are benefits to the mechanisation of bartending. After an initial expense there would be no outlay on wages, save for perhaps the salary of a bar manager, who in this environment would be more of an IT technician and maintenance person. The rise of craft bottles in bars plays well into the hands of the robots. There's no pour needed. A bottle would slide out of a dispenser, perhaps being opened as it was released to avoid the bar being used as an off-licence. Cocktails, too, could easily be produced by a machine.

As the night goes on an interesting question is raised. Would cask ale foil the rise of the robots? We can automate bottle dispenses, and allow for self service from keg taps very easily, but would a robot ever be able to handle the technicalities of pulling real ale, bearing in mind that it would certainly require a fine hand on the pump, and indeed the use of a pump in general?

Would real ale be the John/Sarah Connor of this beery Terminator situation?

Time drags on, and it's a moot point.

It's getting late, and there's only one question I can end with.

"Would you ever be involved in creating a robot bartender?"

The master of robots looks at me, after spending a couple of hours joining me in dreaming up a future not so much dark as just dull, where beer comes from holes in the wall that scan your biometric ID card and make you do brain exercises after a few jars.

He responds, thankfully, with "no".

We have an ally, should the robots rise up and take over our pubs.

Judgement Day has been deferred.

1 comment:

  1. Supermarket self-service tills is one of my favourite comparisons when considering a more automated bar. If you pitched the idea of self-service to most people a decade ago, they'd probably be dead set against them, and while most people would choose a human server over a self-service till if there was no queue for the human, we are now fairly accepting of these tills. Mainly because, on the whole, they are faster. Odds are, these tills help keep grocery costs down as supermarkets are spending less on staff.

    The same will be true of bars. I genuinely feel high-end bars will retain staff, and low-end bars won't be able to afford automation, but in the middle bars such as Wetherspoons and other big chains are going to pounce on any level of automation they can get away with if it drives their costs down. Lower operating costs means cheaper beer and outside the beer geek fraternity, price is one of the main concerns.

    So bottle dispensers may be first. Then keg beer. Then, perhaps, cask. The technology is already here, it's finding a way round the legal hurdles as you've pointed out. I don't think this is too difficult, though. You could input your driving licence or passport number into an app which then connects with the vending machine via wi-fi to demonstrate you're over 18.

    Either way, if the advantages are there, and reducing costs is a major advantage for any pub, then the companies will find a way past the problems.