If there is any universal idea in this world, it’s that we’re all looking to get back a little time. Countless startups are built around this notion and our meal time is one area that is especially ready for, pardon the phrase, “disruption” in the name of convenience.
But what shape should that convenience take? It’s a question that came to mind when looking at the coverage of this year’s CES. In particular, some of the announcements that came out around kitchen robots.
Before we get too far, we should get our terms straight. For the purposes of this post, I’m referring to automated systems that use articulating arms to perform a variety of tasks as robots. So while a dishwasher may be considered by some to be a robot, for this story, I’m considering it an appliance.
Back to the ‘bots.
I was unable to attend CES this year, and as such, I missed a bunch of robot stuff. LG showed off a mock restaurant with a robot cooking food and making pourover coffee. Samsung demoed a concept robot that was billed as an “extra set of hands” in the kitchen that could grab items, pour oil and even wield a knife. IRobot, maker of the Roomba vacuum announced it too was developing robotic arms to load dishes or carry food to the table. And of course, who could forget the robot that makes raclette melted cheese.
There are other companies out there looking to do much the same with robot arms. Sony has showed off its multitasking kitchen robot vision of the future before, and Moley has been touting this type of technology for years now.
Again, I wasn’t at CES, so I did not see these robots in action, but my inital response to robot arms swerving around a kitchen is why? Are these robotic ambitions the best way to gain greater convenience in the kitchen, or do they just make things more complicated?
Let’s acknowledge that there are definite use cases for robotic arms to help those with disabilities or who are otherwise movement impaired. The University of Washington is working on a voice-controlled robot that can feed people who need such assistance. And researching how robots interact with odd-shaped and often fragile objects like food can help the robotics industry overall. That’s one of the reasons Sony teamed up with Carnegie Mellon to develop food robots, and why Nvidia built a full kitchen to train its robots.
But in our homes, and especially smaller apartments with even smaller kitchens, robot arms seem like more of a menace than a help, taking up space and potentially getting in the way. A case of futuristic form over function.
If people really want convenience in the kitchen, why not push those automated systems into existing appliances, move them further up the stack, or refine existing technologies to produce better meal results? Here’s what I mean:
If you can’t, don’t want to, or don’t have time to cook, you don’t necessarily need another set of mechanical hands in the kitchen. There are plenty of countertop appliances that will take over much of the work for you. The June Oven identifies and cooks food (quite well) automatically. Thermomix and the just-announced Julia will weigh, chop, knead, and guide you through cooking a meal for you so all you have to do is throw in the ingredients. Suvie is a cooking device that keeps your food cold until you program it to cook four different things at once so a complete meal is ready for your family when you get home.
If that’s still too much work for you, just have your meal delivered. Mobile ghost kitchens like those from Zume and Ono Food are moving virtual restaurants into your neighborhood, so delivery times will get faster resulting in fresher food. Robots from Starship are feeding hungry students and staff on college campuses, and Refraction’s REV-1 is braving the snow to bring people their lunch in Michigan.
Or perhaps greater “cooking” convenience should come from new presentations of food we already interact with. Frozen food is no longer a limp Salisbury steak on a tin pan with some peas and dried out rice. Zoni Foods makes frozen plant-based dishes and Meal Hero delivers frozen foods that can be mixed and matched to make a meal. Genie freeze dries individual ingredients and assembles them into an all-in-one container to be reconstituted with steam. Development of new food preservation techniques and devices to bring them back to life can make meals quick to “cook” without the need for robots.
I should also note that the robots we see on display at CES are nowhere near what kitchen robots could eventually become. Sony’s vision is a sleek countertop that features cooking and mixing surfaces. With more research and development, who knows that today’s robotic arms will eventually become and whether they would become less intrusive.
This whole discussion also relates to a story I wrote yesterday about ditching the word “robot” altogether when talking about food automation. The term robots is misleading and makes people think of an autonomous bipedal butler ready to execute our every request.
Who knows if that robo-butler will ever arrive, but for the foreseeable future, I’d love to see companies spend less time on robot limbs for the average home, and more time on innovation in the devices and workflows already embedded in our lives.