Robot bartenders? Welcome to the 2022 Olympics

·3 min read

BEIJING — It is my pleasure to report that the burgers cooked by Chinese robots are not very good. Because if robots start cooking better burgers than humans, we’re in a lot of trouble.

Every Olympics gives the host nation an opportunity to flex before the world in ways both impressive and subtle. At these Games, China is seeking to reduce human-to-human contact while also putting a happy face on automation. Hence, burger-flipping robots … along with cleaning robots, mask-nagging robots, fry-cooking robots, and perhaps the greatest robots of all … bartender robots.

Look around Beijing, and you’ll see robots almost everywhere. Some roll through the lobbies of hotels, spraying a mist of disinfectant in the air in a debatably effective means of combating the spread of COVID. Others scoot through the media center, admonishing visitors to make sure their masks are on straight.

These happy little R2-D2-style robots sport painted-on masks and cheery designs. They’re the complete opposite of those Boston Dynamics robo-helldogs you see pushing down doors and leaping walls like the opening scenes of a robot-uprising movie. They’re charming, inoffensive, and when they trundle around you, it definitely takes you a moment to remember they’re probably filming you and tracking your every move.

BEIJING, CHINA - FEBRUARY 03: A robotic cocktail maker is pictured at the Main Media Centre on February 3, 2022 in Beijing, China. With just one day to the opening ceremony of the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics, Chinese authorities are making final preparations to try and ensure a successful Games amid the continuing Covid-19 coronavirus pandemic. (Photo by Carl Court/Getty Images)
A robotic cocktail maker is pictured at the Main Media Centre on February 3, 2022 in Beijing, China. With just one day to the opening ceremony of the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics, Chinese authorities are making final preparations to try and ensure a successful Games amid the continuing COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic. (Photo by Carl Court/Getty Images)

The Beijing Olympics organizers’ decision to automate much of the cafeteria in the Games’ Main Media Center was a savvy one. Thousands of writers, photographers and broadcasters will pass through the cafeteria over the next two weeks, and the robots are the perfect centerpiece for a soft-focus Olympics story. (Like, you know, this one.)

Look overhead in the cafeteria, and you’ll see a complex system of tracks and cords, where covered dishes descend from the ceiling ready for diners to remove and eat. Look around, and you’ll see a large white mechanical arm deftly flipping baskets of hot fries, or a conveyor belt of burger assembly happening right before your eyes. The wait to be served by a robot can extend up to 40 minutes, even though much of the exact same food is available by walking up to another section of the cafeteria and asking one of the hazmat-clad workers. But who wants to get food from a boring ol’ human being when you can get it delivered by Ultron’s cousin?

Signs all over the cafeteria forbid photography or video, a gentle suggestion that everyone ignores with raised phones and cameras. It’s a rarity in China: flagrant rulebreaking going unpunished.

For about 50 yuan — just under $8 — you can get a burger and fries, or a hot pot, or any of a half-dozen other dishes whipped up for you by robot. They’re about the quality of a theme park meal — not particularly tasty, but then you’re not really coming for the culinary experience anyway.

A few steps away, and wisely closed until the evening, stands what will undoubtedly prove one of the most popular robots among journalists: the Robot Bartender. A flexible arm that summons an array of fruit juices and alcohol for your drink, the Robot Bartender won’t offer you good conversation or life lessons. You can’t tell Robot Bartender your troubles and expect a sympathetic ear.

But you will get a decent Screwdriver or Chichi rapidly and efficiently, and sometimes, that’s enough. Another round, Robot Bartender, and pour a little oil for yourself.