A dentist came to career day at my school when I was a kid, and other than chewing on those colored tablets that highlighted plaque on our teeth, the thing I remember most was him saying that a dentist’s main job was to put themselves out of business. By that he meant, he wanted to teach us to take such good care of our teeth that we didn’t need him anymore.
That’s kind of the feeling I get when it comes to humans and cooking robots. An Atlas Obscura story out this week talks about Georgia Tech scientist David Hu and grad student Hungtang Ko who studied Taiwanese chefs and the specific, efficient motions they use to make perfect fried rice. There is actually a distinct method and combination of movements to keep the rice in constant motion inside a wok, allowing everything to cook evenly without getting burned.
Hu and Ko videotaped the chefs in order to break down their movements with the ultimate goal of training robots to cook fried rice as good as the professionals. As Ko told Atlas Obscura, cooking fried rice is hard work that can result in injuries after years of tossing a wok. Robots also don’t get burned working over a hot stove, or take smoke breaks, or cut themselves, it should be noted.
This story caught my attention because it’s another example in what is becoming a trend: humans training robots to replace humans in the kitchen.
Over in Italy, researchers at the University of Naples Federico II, had famed pizzaiolo Enzo Coccia wear a motion capture suit to record his motions as he made pizza so a robot could learn to replicate them.
These cooks narrated their actions and researchers went through to manually annotate the 11.5 million images captured. This was turned into a massive data set to train artificial intelligence systems to better understand what is in a kitchen. Smarter AI, in turn, will power smarter robots that could automatically identify different utensils or ingredients.
Looking more into the future, startups like Covariant are using virtual reality (VR) to train robots. This would allow a Michelin star chef to use VR to capture their movements and make those precise cooking techniques downloadable to a home cooking robot.
Even Sony’s vision of the robotic home kitchen has the human owner instructing his cooking robot how to chop a vegetable.
Look, obviously someone (read: some human) has to teach a robot to do new things, especially something as complicated as cooking. And while I think there will always be a place for the personal connection a human chef brings, for a lot of our faster, more casual dining experiences, robots will be the new normal. We’re already seeing the rise of food robots as places like Spyce, Caliburger, Creator, and Cafe X expand their operations.
But since we are at the very beginning stages of this robot revolution, we are watching in real time as humans build and train our own replacements. There is something very cool (robots!), but also very chilling about that (fewer jobs!). Who knows, maybe in the end more people will go into dentistry.