Kitchen Robots are Cooking Up a Squall
Anyone who spends a lot of time in the kitchen knows that there’s at least one gadget out there for every single step in the cooking process. Robotics is becoming a common practice; scientists are stepping up the game, making artificial intelligence (AI) robots come close to reality. Likewise, researchers from the University of Cambridge have trained their ‘robot chef’ to assess the saltiness of a dish at different stages of the chewing process, just like humans. But there has never been an appliance that could handle them all. In 2010, Rajnikanth-starrer Enthiran gave us a glimpse into the lifetime of ‘Chitti’, a synthetic intelligence (AI)-powered humanoid robot, who may combat, clear and even cook dinner, however, was not programmed to eat or style meals.
Cut to 2022, robotic chefs are for real, overshadowing ‘Chitti’. The researchers labored in collaboration with home equipment producer Beko to realize this objective.
Later this year, London-based robotics company Moley will begin selling the first robot chef. The company claims the ceiling-mounted device, called the Moley Robotic Kitchen, which will be able to cook over 5,000 recipes and even clean up after itself. Next up, is The Kitchen, which took six years to develop, centers around two robotic arms that glide along a track installed in the kitchen ceiling. The arms are fitted with two articulating hands that can recreate the actions and movements of professional chefs, which have been uploaded into its memory. Until 2017, the robot chef could only make one dish: crab bisque. Now, however, it will come pre-programmed with thousands of recipes. People simply have to select their meal on a touchscreen and let it get to work. Of course; there are still skills the robotic kitchen hasn’t mastered yet. While it can crack an egg, it isn’t yet capable of peeling a potato or dicing carrots. Therefore, you’ll need to handle some of the prep work yourself, and then lay out the pre-weighed ingredients on the counter or in its smart fridge.
Most home cooks will be familiar with the concept of tasting as you go – checking a dish throughout the cooking process to check whether the balance of flavors is right
The Training of Robot Chef
The researchers worked in collaboration with a domestic appliances manufacturer Beko to achieve this goal. It was trained to taste the food at different stages of the chewing process to assess whether it's sufficiently seasoned. The robot chef, which has already been trained to make omelets based on a human taster's feedback, tasted nine different variations of a simple dish of scrambled eggs and tomatoes at three different stages of the chewing process and produced 'taste maps' of the different dishes.
“Most home cooks will be familiar with the concept of tasting as you go – checking a dish throughout the cooking process to check whether the balance of flavors is right,” Grzegorz Sochacki from Cambridge’s Department of Engineering, the paper’s first author. He also explains that if robots are to be used for certain aspects of food preparation, it’s important that they are able to ‘taste’ what they’re cooking.
“When we taste, the process of chewing also provides continuous feedback to our brains,” says, co-author Dr Arsen Abdulali, also from the Department of Engineering adding that he explains current methods of electronic testing only take a single snapshot from a homogenized sample, so we wanted to replicate a more realistic process of chewing and tasting in a robotic system, which should result in a tastier end product.
To imitate the human process of chewing and tasting in their robot chef, the researchers attached a conductance probe, which acts as a salinity sensor, to a robot arm. With that they prepared scrambled eggs and tomatoes, varying the number of tomatoes and the amount of salt in each dish. Using the probe, the robot ‘tasted’ the dishes in a grid-like fashion, returning a reading in just a few seconds. To imitate the change in texture caused by chewing, the team then put the egg mixture in a blender and had the robot test the dish again. The different readings at different points of ‘chewing’ produced taste maps of each dish. Their results showed a significant improvement in the ability of robots to assess saltiness over other electronic tasting methods, which are often time-consuming and only provide a single reading. While their technique is a proof of concept, the researchers say that by imitating the human processes of chewing and tasting, robots will eventually be able to produce food that humans will enjoy and could be tweaked according to individual tastes.
Applications of Robotic Chefs
Tech firms are now developing robots that can cook and plate up entire meals, both for commercial and domestic kitchens. One restaurant group that already uses a robot for all its cooking is French pizza mini-chain Pazzi. The business is owned by two robotic engineering students, who designed their own pizza-making robot and then opened their first branch in Paris in 2019. They now have a second outlet in the French capital and another in Brussels. Once an order is received, the robot in each location completes the full process - pressing the dough, adding the sauce, putting on the chosen toppings, cooking the pizza, placing it in the takeaway box, slicing it into pieces, and handing it to the customer. This is said to take just five minutes per pizza.