Doug Bonderud

Sep 23rd 2022

The Robotic Chef: A Taste of the Future?


What if a robot chef could take over the cooking? It sounds a bit sci-fi, but it’s now within the realm of possibility thanks to advancements like a robotic chef that’s capable of “tasting” foods during the preparation process. Designed by researchers from the University of Cambridge and underpinned by physical frameworks from appliance manufacturer 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.

Over the Lips and Past the Gums

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

By the 1800s, the French (unsurprisingly) coined the terms “gourmand” and “chef,” in turn driving the development of specialized food preparers who would push the envelope for taste and texture. Advancements such as preservation via canning and appliances such as the microwave made cooking easier, while more recent trends have once again focused on making food as “natural” as possible. As robotic capabilities increase, cooking with robots may offer the best of both worlds.

Taste as You Go

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

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

Still, this chef of the future isn’t ready for prime time just yet. Right now it can only measure the saltiness of foods and has limited capabilities in preparing dishes for picky human eaters. Subsequent versions of this robotic foodie will include the ability to taste sweet, oily and other key indicators to help it make food that’s better suited to the human palate. The use of deep and machine learning algorithms, meanwhile, should make it possible for electric eating experts to adjust their cooking styles to match the preferences of individual human users.

A Recipe for Success

While the potential rise of robot chefs comes with the same question that’s always asked about automated employees in factories and manufacturing plants — will they replace human workers? — an answer in the affirmative is actually preferred. Why? Because as the Harvard Business Review notes, 90% of Americans don’t actually enjoy cooking. Forty-five percent are lukewarm about it, 45% loathe it, and just 10% say they love it.

It makes sense. Not only are we struggling to balance work, kids and other responsibilities, but the actual act of cooking isn’t always enjoyable. Watching top-tier chefs work their magic on television can leave everyday cookers feeling like their creations might never measure up, and it’s hard to justify spending an hour cooking (and another cleaning) just to make 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 brink of bringing them to market. Robotics firm Moley has developed the Moley Robotics Kitchen, which can make more than 5,000 recipes and clean up the mess after it’s done cooking. While the technology has come a long way — in 2017 the Moley could only make crab bisque — there are still some limitations. This tech can’t taste your food, and you need to do some of the prep work, such as peeling and cutting potatoes, before the robot can get cooking. You’ll also have to pay anywhere from $100,000 to $300,000 to have one installed in your home. Still, there’s something to be said for sitting back and (mostly) relaxing while your personal, digital chef whips up a dish.

And who knows? If mastication mechanics improve with the next generation of robot chef research, we might soon see a fully fledged gigabyte gourmand ready to make whatever you want, whenever you want it.

Check out Northrop Grumman career opportunities to see how you can participate in this fascinating time of discovery in science, technology and engineering.