How Robots Help Humans Get Creative in the Kitchen

Eating is essential to survival, but our relationship with food is complicated. Some people love cooking, and savor the idea of an evening spent pairing unique ingredients and creating something delicious. Others hate cooking and prefer to eat out, resorting to instant noodles and toast whenever they have to find food at home.

Robots are changing how we think about cooking; high-end chefs who want to test their creativity use them as do working parents who want to come home to a hot meal. Here’s how robot helpers are whipping up dinners and taking over the restaurant game.   

Robot Chefs Prepare Meals At Home

If you ever wanted a home cooked meal but were too lazy to get up and make it yourself, then there’s a robot for you. Moley Robotics has developed a fully-integrated kitchen robot, where most users don’t know where the kitchen ends and the robot begins.

Two robotic hands work with the same sensitivity and skill as the human hands of a master chef. Not only will people who use this robot enjoy delicious meals, they will also enjoy five-star quality and care in preparation. The robot is set to reach the consumer market in 2018 and will have an iTunes-style recipe interface.

Moley’s consumer-facing robot learned how to cook with the help of a master chef, similar to how RoDyMan, a pizza-loving robot that uses 3D object perception and dynamic manipulation control to make its pies, learned its skills.

In fact, it was author, chef, and international pizza consultant Enzo Coccia who taught RoDyMan, Maria Dermentzi, founder of Code It Like a Girl, writes. Attached to sensors, Coccia moved through the pizza-making process so the robot could mimic him. The robotic movements are fluid and confident because they copy the hand movements of one of the best pizza makers in Europe.


Most Kitchen Robots Look Like Household Appliances

Most people might picture dramatic robot arms when envisioning their own robotic chef, but the reality probably looks more like GammaChef.

GammaChef looks like a combination of a mixing bowl, hot plate, and refrigerator drawer partly because that’s what it is. Its touch screen display makes it easy to select from multiple recipes, including risottos, pastas, and stews.

As chef robots reach the consumer market, more middle-income people are likely to turn to this countertop gadget instead of investing in a full robot kitchen remodel.  

Thermomix is a similar robot entering the American market. It is marketed as an “all-in-one” cooking appliance that helps people who don’t know how to cook. By using the touchscreen, home cooks can command the robot to complete various tasks. The person becomes more like a pilot guiding the robot instead of a cook chopping onions and sweating away over a hot stove.

Robot Development Taps Into Current Consumer Trends

While robot development can be a lucrative business model, some companies are also entering service industries and tapping into food delivery trends.

Take Suvie for example. This robot is for busy people who want home-cooked meals but don’t have time to prepare them. Homeowners load ingredients, set a timer, and arrive home to a fully cooked meal waiting for them. Even sourcing the ingredients is easy: What sets Suvie apart is that people can receive subscription boxes of food, not unlike Blue Apron or Hello Fresh.

Meal delivery services have taken off in America over the past few years. According to Richard Kestenbaum at Forbes, traffic to subscription box websites has grown more than 800 percent since 2014. Blue Apron leads the way as far as number of monthly visits (topping Dollar Shave Club), and the food delivery industry falls just behind the beauty industry with 33 percent of total subscription box market share.

Suvie has managed to develop a business model where customers don’t just buy one robot once; instead, customers also subscribe to meal plans offered by the company.


Robots Work in Restaurants

Robots are also moving into the restaurant game. If you want some robot-prepared stir fry then head to Boston. Four MIT students recently opened Spyce, the world’s first restaurant featuring a robotic kitchen.

Not only were the owners of Spyce moved to develop the concept because of their love of robots, they also wanted to solve a problem: fresh, healthy food is expensive and hard to come by in their Boston community. They wanted to develop a fast casual restaurant that offered healthy options at an affordable price. Guests order on touch screen kiosks and receive their stir fry whenever the robot assigned to their meal finishes it.

Spyce is entirely robot run, but other companies are turning to robots as tools to complete specific tasks in the kitchen. For example, Miso Robotics has developed Flippy, an autonomous robotic kitchen assistant that cooks, flips and serves up burgers for humans to dress and hand to customers. The robot arm hovers over the meat and makes sure each item is cooked for a perfect amount of time.

While Flippy won’t replace humans entirely in a fast food setting, it certainly can replace a line cook struggling to keep up during the lunch rush.

Robot Technology Allows Companies to Adjust Costs

Spyce and Miso Robotics aren’t the first developers to consider reducing labor costs so they can spend more on high-quality food products. In an article for Interesting Engineering, Christopher McFadden speculates that robots could help reduce liabilities and improve health and safety. Instead of hiring a team of line cooks, companies would hire a handful of maintenance engineers.

McFadden writes that restaurant employees pushing for higher wages could actually make an argument for making their jobs redundant.

There’s a further point that McFadden touches on that the founders of Spyce emphasize with their work: robot labor frees up funds to invest in the products. USA Today reporter Charisse Jones says McDonald’s is working to improve their products with fresher ingredients.

The fast food company has lost “hundreds of millions” of customer visits from people who are looking for higher-quality food. In the past few years, McDonald’s has worked to serve fresh, not frozen, burgers and remove preservatives from its chicken. These changes are expensive, for McDonald’s or any brand that wants to improve the quality of its ingredients, and companies might be looking to use robots to cut down on long-term costs.


Robots Create Unique Recipes

Cooking isn’t just a science, it’s an art. Chefs use creativity and intuition to develop tantalizing creations that keep customers coming back. In addition to mechanical bots that can follow instructions, developers are working to create AI tools that actually make up their own recipes.

A few years ago, Daniela Hernandez at SplinterNews wrote about the Robo-Meal Master, an AI robot that creates recipes. Its developer trained the robot to read 160,000 recipes and create its own. One recipe was “chicken beans muffins,” which actually didn’t have any chicken or beans, but does have “chopped beer” and “whipped cream ends of honey.” Needless to say, this AI needs some work.   

After the Robo-Meal Master came IBM’s Watson, which developed a cookbook with the help of AI specialist Steve Abrams. Cognitive Cooking With Chef Watson includes recipes like an  Austrian chocolate burrito and Thai-Jewish chicken with potato latkes and rice balls. While these recipes are still fun, it helps to understand where they come from. Abrams explains how Watson creates recipes really well:

“You know what pizza is because you’ve eaten pizza, you’ve experienced pizza,” he says. “Watson knows what pizza is because it’s read about pizza. Watson read a whole bunch of pizza recipes, and has learned that there’s dough, and some sauce, and vegetables and meats and cheese.”

For another example, Tanya Lewis at LiveScience profiled a military robot funded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. The robot learned recipes from watching YouTube videos. Robots are great at learning patterns and identifying objects. Through YouTube, the robot was able to create recipes following the movements of chefs and video bloggers.

If the ingredients seem a bit off, it’s because these robots don’t have a taste for flavor yet, but rather follow formulas for what should be in various recipes (i.e. a meat or vegetable dish, or a dessert) to complete recipes. For the bots, meal creation is less about flavor, and more about assembling the right elements to complete the dish.  

AI Continues to Evolve

Both of the recipe AI robots started developing their creations a few years ago, and through learning and development are already leaps and bounds ahead of where they were. Other startups have come forward to develop AI robots to map out flavors and help consumers with recipe planning.

For example, Plant Jammer, created by Michael Haase, is a startup that uses machine learning to help people reduce food waste. You list items that you have in your refrigerator and plant jammer develops recipes based on what you have. Instead of eating out, going to buy more groceries, or throwing out food you don’t think you can use, you can creatively make new meals with what you have. This is another example of technology working to help people, but also solve societal problems.

Foodpairing is another machine learning tool that helps people discover unique food and drink combinations. The app is meant for chefs and bartenders to come up with new ideas, but can also be used at home. Two ingredients that you might not think would go together could actually create something amazing. If you got excited by the idea of a Thai-Jewish chicken recipe mentioned earlier, this is a great app for you.

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