Why You Don’t Want a Robot in Your Kitchen

What's to come?
Aug. 27 2012 7:30 AM

Stay Out of My Kitchen, Robots

Some new cooking technologies may make the home chef more efficient—but they take the joy and serendipity out of the experience.

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This is not a snobbish defense of the sanctified traditions of cooking. In a world where only a select few could master the tricks of the trade, such “augmented” kitchens would probably be welcome, if only for their promise to democratize access to this art. But this is not a world we inhabit: The Internet is chock-full of detailed recipes and instruction videos on how to cook the most exquisite dish. Do we really need a robot—not to mention surveillance cameras above our heads—to cook that stuffed turkey or roast that lamb?

Besides, it's not so hard to predict where such progress leads: Once inside our kitchens, these data-gathering devices will never leave, developing new, supposedly unanticipated functions. First, we'd install cameras in our kitchens to receive better instructions, then food and consumer electronics companies would tell us that they'd like us to keep the cameras to improve their products, and, finally, we'd discover that all our cooking data now resides on a server in California, with insurance companies analyzing just how much saturated fat we consume in order to adjust our insurance premiums. Cooking abetted by smart technology could be just a Trojan horse for far more sinister projects.

None of this is to say that technology cannot increase our pleasure from cooking—and not just in terms of making our food tastier and healthier. Technology, used with some imagination and without the traditional geek fetishism of efficiency and perfection, can actually make the cooking process more challenging, opening up new vistas for experimentation and giving us new ways to violate the rules.

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Compare the impoverished culinary vision on offer in the New Scientist with just some of the fancy gadgetry embraced by the molecular gastronomy movement. From thermal immersion circulators for cooking at low temperature to printers with edible paper, from syringes used to produce weird noodles and caviar to induction cookers that send magnetic waves through metal pans, all these gadgets make cooking more difficult, more challenging, more exciting. They can infuse any aspiring chef with great passion for the culinary arts—much more so than surveillance cameras or instructions-spewing robots.

Strict adherence to recipes can produce predictable, albeit tasty, dishes—and occasionally, this is just what we want. But such standardization can also make our kitchens as exciting as McDonald's joints. Celebrating innovation for its own sake is in bad taste. For technology to truly augment reality, its designers and engineers should get a better idea of the complex practices of which that reality is composed.

Disclosure: Slate and the New Scientist have a content-sharing partnership.

This article arises from Future Tense, a collaboration among Arizona State University, the New America Foundation, and Slate. Future Tense explores the ways emerging technologies affect society, policy, and culture. To read more, visit the Future Tense blog and the Future Tense home page. You can also follow us on Twitter.

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