An empty bar is best. You just pick a seat where there's light enough to read, and the bartender comes right over. Then there are the busy nights, when people crush around the bar three deep and getting a drink seems impossible. What kind of supernatural skills are necessary for getting a cocktail on a Saturday night?
Researchers studied people trying to order a drink and found that simply standing "squarely at the bar" while keeping an eye on the bartender was the most successful path to being served a beverage.
What hardly ever "worked" was futzing around with your wallet, squinting at the sign with the drink specials, talking to your friends, or looking at a menu. Ordering a drink at a crowded bar requires the same passive-aggressive skills needed for almost any encounter with another human. Cutting ahead is boorish. Embarrassedly looking at the floor makes you invisible. Your intent must be plain, but never obnoxious.
These are good rules in general. By studying these thirsty customers, the researchers provided society with a gift: If we all just behaved like the successful drinker, it wouldn't be so baffling and exhausting to deal with people.
But the researchers have no interest in making civilization more civil. They're just working for the robot manufacturers, because the next human profession the robots will take is the very social job of tending bar.
"Recognizing the intention of others is important in all social interactions, especially in the service domain," researchers Sebastian Loth, Kerstin Huth and Jan P. De Ruiter write in their new scientific paper. "Enabling a bartending robot to serve customers is particularly challenging as the system has to recognize the social signals produced by customers and respond appropriately …. This detection is particularly challenging in a noisy environment with multiple customers."
As in nearly every occupation known to humanity, a robot bartender would be preferable to an unreliable human. The robot will never give free drinks to its friends, and it will never skip work because of sickness or a drug binge the night before. The robot will not reward very attractive patrons with stronger drinks. Liquor inventories finally become reliable. The robot never cries.
A bar could be easily manned by an industrial spider-armed assembly-line contraption that plucked pint glasses and bottles from bar-coded shelves and poured drinks from smartphone orders. James is much more than that, which is why humans were studied as they ordered from a fellow human. Eye contact and "social signals" are the interface James uses to identify the people most likely to be ready with an "I'll have a …."
A cab driver spots a hand rise up from a roiling sea of people, a doorman sees a guest pivot toward the hotel's entrance, a waiter sees the party of four put their menus down. The civil robot must also respond to these unspoken cues while filtering the noise—grocery stores can get away with an automatic door that opens every time a shadow hits the light sensor, but that looks tacky at a four-star hotel.
The new robots that replace all of these workers must also have a humanoid appearance. These are not the purely functional industrial monsters that make silicon chips or automobiles. A robot that responds to eye contact or banters with your group is considered charming instead of ominous—the updated "Star Tours" ride at Disneyland uses clever animatronic droids as likable versions of TSA screeners, who are loathed in their human form.
At the beer hall where I drank last night, it's easy to imagine a robot doing the barman's job. There are 25 beers on tap, each with a brief story recited by the knowledgeable man behind the taps. Sample tastes are offered, credit cards are taken and swiped, foam is skimmed off the full glasses, and friendly words are exchanged during and after the transactions. Add in the ability to call 911 or fire a taser at a nasty drunk, and you've covered every bartender duty except going home with a customer to have sex.
A humanoid mechanical bartender is already at work in the German town of Ilmenau. His name is Carl, and the customers seem amused enough by his dexterity and small talk to not realize there's another human out of work in this East German region of 10 percent unemployment.