There are questions that—no matter how often we pose them—it never occurs to us to seek an answer from science: What is the right work-life balance? Why were we put on this earth? And how am I supposed to get the bartender’s attention in this noisy, crowded bar?
The robot is named James—for Joint Action in Multimodal Embodied Systems—and “he” has one arm, no legs, and a tablet computer for a face. James will not make you an Old Fashioned or draw you a pint. Jan de Ruiter, one of the lead researchers on the project, concedes that James can neither shake nor stir your martini. At its most advanced, the robot bartender will hand you a bottle resting in front of it. If you ask for the water, James will hand you the water; if you ask for the Coke, you get the Coke. No, James won’t open it.
The goal of James, however, is not mixological—it is social. He is programmed to react to you in the same way a bartender would. The challenge that de Ruiter and his colleagues set out to solve is how to determine whether the person standing in front of the bar wants to be served or is standing there simply because there is nowhere else to stand. It’s the sort of judgment that’s trivially easy for a person to make—but very hard for a robot.
“The general exercise here is to make robots more social, or to make them social at all. Robots can do certain things very well—they can certainly move faster than I can—but their social intelligence is very limited,” says de Ruiter, a cognitive scientist and professor of psycholinguistics at Germany’s Bielefeld University. “We picked a bar setting because it’s social but not too complicated.”
The researchers filmed patrons placing orders in bars and nightclubs in Germany and Scotland to see how they interact with bartenders and used that data to program James. They found that the most common and successful method for both German and Scots drinkers isn’t to wave or gesture or flash a wad of bills—it’s simply to stand at the bar, directly facing the barkeep, and make eye contact. The researchers incorporated that data into James’s programming.
According to de Ruiter, James is even equipped with a “small-talk module” that allows him to banter a bit: Asked how old he is, for instance, James coyly replies that he doesn’t like to talk about his age. Still, the challenge for James is to differentiate banter from an order—something, again, that humans do effortlessly. In videos available online, James comes across as competent while serving up bottles of water with a flourish. He’s friendly and occasionally befuddled. Remember Coach from Cheers, Woody’s equally dimwitted but older predecessor? James is a bit like that. (An earlier version of James has an animatronic cat head and giant arms swathed in what looks like a Renaissance blouse, and he looks as if he should be tending bar in Jim Henson’s Labyrinth.)
I asked de Ruiter if James dispenses homespun bartender-type life advice. He responds with a dry Continental chuckle. Bartenders, he says, don’t really do that. “This is a famous stereotype. It is not as frequent as presented in movies. Maybe in the U.S. it is, but it’s quite uncommon in Europe—or at least in old Europe, as Donald Rumsfeld would say.” Still, he adds, it might be interesting to add a therapeutic module, perhaps Eliza, a famous 1960s computer program that, despite “her” canned answers, nonetheless left many users persuaded that she had understood and helped them.
More broadly, de Ruiter wants to expand the James project into other occupations, including receptionists and shopkeepers, to see if robots can begin to mimic the social dynamics in those settings. Does this mean that people in those lines of work, along with bartenders—and warehouse workers, travel agents, and textile workers—should fear for their jobs? Again, de Ruiter chuckles.
“For me, this is always a big shock, how little people—and by that I mean journalists—know about how hard robotics is. A five-year-old is Star Trek compared with our best robot, in terms of object manipulation, verbal communication, nonverbal communication, social interaction. So in our lifetimes, no matter how young you are, you will not see a robot bartender being an employment threat for human bartenders. Maybe as a novelty item, but as a commercial item, no. It’s out of the question.”