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In Alex Garland’s sci-fi masterpiece Ex Machina, Nathan Bateman (Oscar Isaac) secretly crafts an advanced artificially intelligent robot called Ava (Alicia Vikander). She is, in all the ways that matter, indistinguishable from a human being, save for a robotic body and a — perhaps justified — penchant for violence.
Crafting machines capable of performing tasks and behaving in ways similar to humans is the ultimate goal of robotics, but we have, so far, run up against the limits of our current technology when asking robots to perform even relatively simple tasks. Our machines can be quite good at performing highly repeatable or strictly defined tasks like exploring the ocean floor or — with the assistance of human operators — performing surgeries. However, things we take for granted, particularly things which require real-time feedback from the environment, remain a challenge.
Now, scientists from the Bio-Inspired Robotics Laboratory in the Department of Engineering at the University of Cambridge have taken a delicious step toward building better robots capable of doing one of the most critical human tasks: cooking a better breakfast. The results of their work were published in the journal Frontiers in Robotics and AI.
Humans are only capable of successfully navigating the world because of our senses. Taking in stimuli from the environment allows us to assess a situation and make adjustments in our behavior. While many robots have rudimentary senses, particularly vision and hearing, there are portions of the world’s sensory experiences which have been lacking so far.
Recent experiments by another research team crafted robotic arms with an impressive sense of touch, checking another box on the sensory checklist, and this current work adds taste into the mix. Researchers trained their robotic chef to taste a prepared dish under different conditions in order to assess the way our experience of a meal changes as we’re eating it.
Professional chefs — and parents hoping to sneak a few bites in before the family gets a hold of dinner — employ a “taste as you go” technique which allows them to monitor the flavor profile of the food they're cooking in the act of production. Not only does that allow a cook to make flavor adjustments before a dish is finished, but it also provides information about how the taste changes between taking a bite and swallowing.
Because of changes in texture and the introduction of saliva while we’re chewing, our experience of food evolves as we’re eating it, and it’s this process that the team wanted their robot to understand. To that end, researchers provided the robot with nine versions of an egg and tomato dish at three different stages of chewing and asked it to produce flavor maps.
In the absence of a teeth for chewing, researchers ran the dishes through a blender in order to mimic different stages of mastication. In the absence of a tongue for tasting, they gave the robot a conductance probe attached to its arm which acted as a salinity sensor. By jabbing the probe into the dishes at several locations, it was able to gather data about the taste of the dish and build its flavor maps.
Using taste maps of foods in different combinations, with different textures, and at different levels of seasoning could allow robots to accurately produce palatable food based on an individual consumer’s preferences, making them a useful addition to both commercial and domestic kitchens. In fact, a previous study by some of the same researchers had their robot crafting omelets, cookies, pancakes, and pizza. In the case of omelets, they used feedback from humans to adjust the robot’s technique and improve its ability.
The new built-in tasting ability removes the need for human intervention, at least where it pertains to salt, and could eventually result in a fully automated robotic chef which mimics your personal tastes. If that happens, it might be important to remember to tip your metallic server, a robot which makes a decent breakfast is preferable to one which breaks out of their cell and murders you on their way out the door.