Q&A with the ‘father’ of bionic bartenders

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Carlo Ratti is a big deal. The Italian architect, inventor, engineer and teacher is a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and has been cited as one of the 50 most influential designers in America, one who will “change the world.”

Royal Caribbean took notice of Ratti after he appeared at the 2013 Google I/O, an annual developers’ conference in San Francisco. He was putting a robotic bartender called the MakrShakr through its paces, and RCL saw the kind of innovation its ships are known for.

“Today it is one of our biggest partners,” Ratti says of the only cruiseline with “bionic bartenders.”

Ratti slowed his frenetic pace long enough to answer a few questions about the surprisingly graceful robot mixologists, conceived “almost for fun.”

What’s the origin of Makr Shakr/Bionic Bartender?

We were invited to do an installation [at Google I/O] dealing with the progressive “robotization” of our society. Almost for fun we conceived an experimental project: a robotic bartender that could communicate with people through a dedicated app.

Why was choreographer Marco Pelle chosen as a model for the robot’s movements?

We wanted our robot to make natural, graceful and precise movements, so we contacted the Italian choreographer Marco Pelle of the New York Theatre Ballet to make the robot move like a dancer.

The two arms are like two separate production lines, working independently on separate orders to maximize the hourly output. However, the two arms are programmed to dance together in sync to engage people during idle times.

Apart from those who order drinks, are humans otherwise irrelevant to the machine?

Makr Shakr does not aim to substitute human bartenders. To the contrary, Makr Shakr’s goal is to turn each of us into a bartender – by allowing us to make decisions about cocktails. It is like a process of co-creation: Devices such as digitally-controlled machines and 3D-printers are radically changing our everyday activities, allowing everyone to draw and give shape to their own products and dreams.

Do you see any point or benefit in making robots look human? 

Robots are not humans, so I do not see a point in mimicking human appearance too much.

Do you have any fears/concerns about artificial intelligence?

One of my issues is about the loss of serendipity through the use of Big Data predictive analytics. Consider the familiar act of buying a book online through Amazon. Amazon has a mountain of information about all of its users, which it uses to predict what they might want to buy next. As in all forms of centralized artificial intelligence, past patterns are used to forecast future ones.

But here we should consider that the most meaningful book you should read after those previous 10 is not one that fits neatly into an established pattern, but rather one that surprises or challenges you to look at the world in a different way. Big

Data can multiply our options while filtering out things we don’t want to see, but there is something to be said for discovering that 11th book through pure serendipity.