Shattering Conventions: Cocktail Robotics Grand Challenge

September 24, 2018

The doors haven’t opened yet at the DNA Lounge in San Francisco but a line is already forming. At 5 p.m. on a Sunday it’s way too early for the Death Guild goth night, but these hipsters and techies have gotten here early to have drinks served to them by the robot bartenders of the future.

At the Cocktail Robotics Grand Challenge kooky inventors and their booze-slinging bots compete for $1,000 in prizes, but the whole thing starts with a mechanized cocktail party.

“I saw something with a tentacle in there,” one beardster said while we wait.

“Slimy or metal?” I asked.

He thinks about it for a minute and then says that it was metal.

Once inside the club, I see the tentacle.

It’s sticking out of a box topped with Astroturf and swinging around in circles. I’m not sure how it can mix a martini and I don’t spend too much time trying to find out.

On the other side of the dance floor from the tentacle is the TikiTron. Looking like a cross between an Easter Island statue and the muddy volcano from Peter Brady’s science experiment from The Brady Bunch, the TikiTron is “the world’s only robot that serves Tiki cocktails,” according to the placard next to it.

Computer consultant Samuel Coniglio, aka Dr. Bombay, beckons me to “make a sacrifice” to the pagan god he invented, which I do by dropping a carved wooden idol into the top of the volcano.

Each idol is embedded with a radio-frequency identification (RFID) chip that tells the TikiTron which fruity cocktail to make. I sacrifice the idol with the mai tai chip. Smoke erupts from the TikiTron as if we have angered the fire goddess Pele herself. “Dance!” Doctor Bombay commanded.

We both do the awkward dances of our pasty ancestors while the TikiTron mixes the right amounts of dark rum, curacao and fruit juices. The dancing was ugly but the mai tai was pretty good.

I do my penance for the sins of cultural appropriation with the Shocking Robot. The longer I can withstand being zapped by its live electrode, the more tequila this drinkbot will pour.

I hold on long enough to get a double shot but my palm feels a bit singed afterwards.

Robot Bartenders Versus the Human Drinkslingers

After another machine shoots a vodka Collins at my face I start to see why they didn’t allow droids in the Star Wars cantina. All of these contrivances at the Cocktail Robotics Grand Challenge lack a certain personal touch.

While the robot barkeeps and their inventors are vying for a prize that will be won by PenguinGuyCool92 (better known as the tentacle), Rebekah Brewer Padilla is behind the bar mixing the drinks the old fashioned way.

“I’m honestly not worried about robot bartenders,” she said. “People go to bars to seek the social aspect. People love talking to people.” She pours me a beer.

I tip her a couple of bucks and start to grouse about the high price of real estate. She gives me a couple words of support better than any robot worm could ever hope to—at least for now.

Every month in “Shattering Conventions,” author Bob Calhoun crashes a new tradeshow, convention or conference looking for a way to fit ineven when he doesn't always belong. Calhoun is the author of "Shattering Conventions: Commerce, Cosplay and Conflict on the Expo Floor." You can follow him on Twitter at @bob_calhoun.

A generic silhouette of a person.
About the author
Bob Calhoun