A taste of the future?

What if a robot chef could take over the kitchen? It sounds a bit like science fiction, but it’s now possible thanks to advancements like a robotic chef that can “taste” food during the preparation process. Designed by researchers at the University of Cambridge and backed by physical executives from appliance maker Beko, this chef of the future could help usher in a new era of cooking where we buy the ingredients and let the robots follow the recipe.

On the lips and beyond the gums

Eating is intrinsic to humans, but while food is key to our survival, that doesn’t mean it has to taste bland. As NPR notes, there is evidence that European hunter-gatherers flavored their food with garlic mustard seeds to improve flavor. Analysis of pottery shards dating back to 6,000 years ago revealed microscopic embedded mustard seeds that would have provided negligible nutritional value but added a warm wasabi-like flavor to foods. It therefore seems likely that these seeds were included in ancient recipes primarily for their flavor. Thus began our love affair with combining, seasoning and cooking food.

In the 1800s, the French (unsurprisingly) coined the terms “gourmand” and “chef”, in turn leading to the development of specialist food preparers who would push the boundaries of taste and texture. Advances such as preservation through canning and appliances such as the microwave have made cooking easier, while more recent trends have again focused on making foods as “natural” as possible. As robotic capabilities increase, cooking with robots can offer the best of both worlds.

Taste as you go

The results of the Cambridge University project were reported in a recent Frontiers in Robotics and AI paper titled “Taste-Based Classification Improved by Chewing Multi-Ingredient Dishes for Robotic Cooking.”

If you think that’s a mouthful, you’re right, literally and figuratively. In plain language, the team attached a conductance probe to the robot’s arm that acted as a salinity sensor, allowing the digital chef to ‘taste’ the food he was preparing. To simulate the change in texture and subsequent change in taste when food is chewed, the Cambridge team put the food in a blender and had the robot re-measure. The result was the creation of “taste maps”, which allowed the robot to locate areas with higher or lower salt content.

However, this chef of the future is not yet ready for prime time. Currently, it can only measure the saltiness of food and has limited abilities in preparing dishes for picky human eaters. Later versions of this food processor will include the ability to taste sweetness, fatness and other key indicators to help it prepare food that is better suited to the human palate. The use of deep and machine learning algorithms, meanwhile, should allow power experts to adjust their cooking styles based on the preferences of individual human users.

A recipe for success

As the potential rise of robot chefs comes the same question that is always asked about automated workers in factories and manufacturing plants: will they replace human workers? — an affirmative answer is actually preferred. Why? Because, as the Harvard Business Review notes, 90% of Americans don’t really like to cook. Forty-five percent are lukewarm about it, 45% hate it, and only 10% say they like it.

It makes sense. Not only do we struggle to juggle work, children, and other responsibilities, but the very act of cooking isn’t always enjoyable. Watching top chefs work their magic on TV can make everyday cooks feel like their creations will never measure up, and it’s hard to justify spending an hour cooking (and another cleanup). ) just to cook a meal that isn’t particularly enjoyable.

Most of us would be more than happy to welcome robotic chefs into the kitchen, and some companies are already on the verge of bringing them to market. Robotics company Moley has developed the Moley Robotics Kitchen, which can cook over 5,000 recipes and clean up the mess when it’s done cooking. Although the technology has come a long way — in 2017, the Moley could only make crab bisque — there are still limits. This technology can’t taste your food, and you have to do some of the prep work, like peeling and cutting the potatoes, before the robot can cook. You will also have to pay between $100,000 and $300,000 to have one installed in your home. Still, there’s something to be said for sitting back and (most importantly) relaxing while your personal digital chef prepares a dish.

And who knows? If the mechanics of chewing improve with the next generation of chef robot research, we could soon see a full-fledged gluttonous gigabyte ready to do whatever you want, whenever you want.

Explore Northrop Grumman Career Opportunities to see how you can participate in this exciting time of discovery in science, technology and engineering.

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