We throw around the term “smart” plenty of times when analyzing kitchen devices. But there’s one man who is truly trying to make the way you cook food — and the devices that help you do it — much smarter: Arvind Pereira. He’s the co-founder and CTO of the Markov Corporation, a startup leveraging AI to create a smarter electronic oven. Sort of like a microwave 2.0 — one that uses computer vision to better apply heat to perfectly cook each food to its optimum temperature.
We’re thrilled to have Pereira at the Smart Kitchen Summit (SKS) in Seattle this October! To prime your palate, we asked Pereira a few questions about the role that AI and machine learning will play in the future of the smart kitchens and restaurants of the future.
This interview has been edited for clarity.
What motivated you to apply your experience with AI and machine learning to the food and cooking industry?
I have always been very excited about applications of robotics and AI to various industries due to my background in hardware and software. The first time I worked on something related to food was back when I was a newly-married grad student at USC. My wife Svetlana (who is a software engineer) and I began working on a fun side project app that allowed us to manage our food more efficiently: picking out recipes for the week and creating grocery lists out of what we had in the refrigerator. I wanted to use computer vision to detect the contents of the fridge, but never got around to it. I didn’t do anything interesting related to food after that, until the end of my stint at Clover.
I’d say that my daughter Charlotte and Leonard (the founder of Clover) are probably the biggest motivators in getting me started on my journey of using AI in the food industry. When Charlotte was born, I was badly sleep-deprived, and decided to build an AI-powered baby monitor using various sensors including visual and thermal cameras. My goal there was to have my intelligent monitor take actions like controlling the temperature of the room to keep Charlotte comfortable, in order to potentially obviate the need for us to wake up more often than really needed.
I’d just begun working on this idea in my spare time when I mentioned it to Leonard (who is my Markov co-founder now). It turns out he had been thinking about building a device that cooked food accurately using thermal feedback — and my baby monitor, which was closing the loop around room temperature, reminded him of it. After that I couldn’t stop thinking about how to develop a cooking device that could cook precisely and quickly. While I felt confident that I could design the electronics, software and AI for such an oven, I didn’t know enough about high-power radio frequency (RF) to build a device with the control we would need. When I met our third co-founder Nick through a search in our extended networks though, I knew that we had the core team that could make this happen (assuming it could even be done).
Tell us more about the Level, Markov’s AI-powered oven. What makes it so unique?
Level is designed to be fast like a microwave, but precise like a sous vide machine. It does this through two synergistic technologies: a proprietary heat steering technology and novel AI algorithms, which work together to cook precisely. Level senses the temperature of the food using a thermal camera, and then steers the heat into areas that are not yet hot while keeping heat away from areas that are too hot. We are the first device (to our knowledge) that can cook multiple items of food to different temperatures by using that feedback.
Since Level uses RF to heat food, it is ideal for hot grab-and-go meals prepared in the moment. We use deep learning and specialized adaptive algorithms cook precisely and with control. Not only does Level constantly get better through software updates, and learn to recognize/cook more items through over-the-air-updates, but the AI literally learns to cook better on its own by analyzing every cooking session performed. Over time, each Level benefits from information gleaned by every other Level that has cooked before it. We hope to delight our customers with these improvements, letting them cook food better and faster with much higher consistency.
What role do you see AI playing in the future of food, specifically in the kitchen?
The fastest moving subfield within AI is machine learning, which has made big strides in the fields of computer vision, speech recognition and even natural language processing. It is exciting to see many companies start bringing AI and robotics to the kitchen space by leveraging these advances in perception to automate or simplify cooking. AI is going to be embedded in every appliance we own, and these appliances are going to be networked together to synergistically help us perform our tasks more easily.
Robots and AI are already helping us perform various jobs within the food industry: harvesting vegetables and fruits, processing meat, cooking food, and even delivering it to customers at restaurants. People want to automate these processes to combat shortages of trained labor, increase quality control, and simplifying cooking through automation. AI is going to be at the center of almost all these transformations. Perception and learning are critical pieces in helping build better, more intelligent cooking devices.
Before founding Markov, you worked at Clover — a company which manufactured and provided POS terminals to, among other places, restaurants. How do you see tech changing the restaurant industry?
Yes, Clover is very popular in restaurants and we had customers that ranged from single family-owned restaurants to restaurant chains. What struck me as interesting about restaurants was how difficult it was to make the business work. As a result, when we started Markov, I spent a lot more time thinking about how to solve pain points for this industry. If we can help restaurants serve better food, reduce training time for staff by simplifying the cooking process, and improve the transparency around food quality, this should help make restaurants easier to run.
Clover allowed merchants to get an amazing view of their businesses through the data we could share with them through our own apps, or via third party ones. Quality control is hard to achieve across chains of restaurants. Connected equipment will help in a big way — this is already happening with smart homes, and similarly the restaurants of the future are going to be more connected, more automated, and easier to manage, both within the restaurant and across larger chains.
Automation is clearly becoming a bigger part of the meal journey — how should companies adjust their strategies to embrace this?
Automation in the food industry is inevitable. Over time, as businesses find it harder to employ trained workers at affordable wages, companies that have the technology to manage their operational costs are going to have a competitive advantage over companies that do not.
While traditional kitchens will continue to exist, we expect that it will be more economical to provide good food through the commissary model or with just-in-time delivery, or via grab-and-go sales. Just like Amazon used the internet to disrupt retail, by optimizing food preparation and delivery, companies that can execute on more efficient models which cut costs and deliver superior value are likely to win over more customers and out-maneuver their competition.
As cooking becomes more automated (and simpler) I think businesses will gain from it — and gain new competition. Companies will have to watch where automation is heading and look for opportunities to gain efficiencies through smarter allocation of resources and real estate, and ensure that they are staying up to date with technology that helps them run their businesses better.
I think summits like SKS help provide insights into what the future of food is shaping up to be. The future is definitely exciting in the food industry, and technologies that enable automation like AI and robotics are going to have an increasingly big role to play in shaping it.
Thanks, Arvind! If you want to see him speak more about the role AI will play in the future kitchen, at home and in the restaurant, snag your tickets to the Smart Kitchen Summit on October 8-9th in Seattle.