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The labor shortage is bringing Blade Runner to bartending as A.I. and robots start taking your drink order

February 4, 2022, 9:36 PM UTC

There is a bar with a human, a robot, and a sophisticated piece of A.I. software. It sounds like the buildup to a bad joke, but it may be closer to reality than you think.

Robots have been serving us drinks for a long time, from fully automated kiosks to hybrid services where you order on your smartphone and your drink is brought to you by a human. But these companies are starting to branch out and integrate artificial intelligence with automated service.

Yanu.ai, an Estonian company, is leading the charge in Europe and the Middle East. 

The company has designed a fully automated bar, complete with interactive screens, secure payment applications, and a robotic arm to mix and serve drinks. The device can whip up 100 drinks an hour and can craft up to 1,500 cocktails before needing to be restocked.

But its most innovative and futuristic aspect is an integrated A.I. software that comes close to emulating the experience of talking to a human bartender, bringing us closer to a Blade Runner-esque future of interactions and relationships with A.I. It’s part of a wider trend of automation replacing jobs, especially during the epic labor shortage that arose during the second year of the pandemic.

“We’re right now teaming up with an A.I. company that can create emotion recognition,” Yanu founder and CEO Alan Adojaan told Fortune. “[A.I. bartenders] have a library and the ability to recognize emotions and reactions of clients, which makes the experience so much better.” 

Yanu CEO Alan Adojaan and his company’s robotic bartender
CEO Alan Adojaan showcases Yanu’s A.I.- and robotics-powered automated bartending service at the 2020 World Expo in Dubai.
Courtesy of Yanu

Adojaan, who is currently showcasing his company’s bartending A.I. service at this year’s World Expo in Dubai, said he believes the A.I. feature gives the service a “human side and soul,” adding that the product will be able to crack jokes, have conversations, and react to clients’ behavior. 

Yanu is still in its pilot phase, but Adojaan says it’s already receiving at least 10 inquiries a week.

“We just landed a $1 million deal with a big cinema chain in the Baltics. We have interest from the Emirates government here, and we are in talks with Marriott and Radisson,” Adojaan said. “This year, we signed 37 letters of intent to set up at least 10 pilots, and go into full production next year.”

Adojaan says that the biggest markets for his company are Europe and the Middle East, although he sees big opportunities in Asia as well. “Asia is a very tricky market, plus espionage and copying problems still come from there,” Adojaan said, but a lack of credible competition means that “there is a big opportunity for us today” in the region.

Adojaan is less optimistic, however, about the immediate prospects of his company expanding into the U.S., which he called “quite divided.”

While Adojaan has seen interest in tech-savvy states like California, his company has encountered resistance from anti-automation unions and lobby groups, which he says are “very much against all that stuff.”

Some companies similar to Yanu have had some success in the U.S. Cecilia.ai is an artificial intelligence–powered bartender that, like Yanu, can mix up to 100 drinks an hour and offer personalized bartending experiences to customers.

Unlike Yanu, which uses robotics, Cecilia appears as a CGI-generated woman on a screen who can take clients’ orders. Like Yanu, Cecilia can react to low stock, customer requests, and can even make drink recommendations.

Cecilia is being launched at venues such as stadiums, airport lounges, and cruises, NBC reports, but the company, which is based in Israel, has plans to expand further to assuage the hospitality and service industry’s ongoing staffing troubles.

Almost 1 million restaurant and hotel workers in the U.S. quit their jobs last November, almost 7% of the sector’s workforce, as the Great Resignation fueled labor shortages across the hospitality industry. 

Adojaan, who spent 15 years working in bars, nightclubs, and restaurants, believes that automated processes like the ones developed by Yanu and Cecilia will be necessary.

“There is a real need for these workers and there is not enough, and nobody wants to do the job anymore,” Adojaan said. “It’s a dangerous, dirty job and all that.”

Adojaan believes that human bartending will still be a thing, especially in higher-end places where more specially curated drinks are expected, but there are also many spaces where human servers wouldn’t want to be that can be replaced by automation. 

“What we do is we address other places, busy places, transportation hubs, 24-hour cycles in the lobby bars, whenever there’s a need for a fast or cheap service or, you know, just helping out,” Adojaan says.

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