Why You Don’t Want a Robot in Your Kitchen

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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.

A robot performs pre-programed actions as a chef (R) prepares food in the Robot Kitchen restaurant.
A robot performs pre-programed actions as a chef prepares food in the Robot Kitchen restaurant in Hong Kong, 25 September 2006.

Photo by Laurent Fievet/AFP/Getty Images.

"Don't you have a machine that puts food into the mouth and pushes it down?" the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev sarcastically asked Richard Nixon in the now infamous Kitchen Debate of 1959. That memorable exchange took place at the opening of the American National Exhibition in Moscow, where Nixon, then vice president, went to promote the latest innovations of the decadent West.

Today, even the most Pampered Chef has no such food-pushing machine, but the quest to make our kitchens smarter continues unabated. Today's technologies are no longer the dumb, passive appliances of the 1950s. Some of them feature tiny and sophisticated sensors that "understand"—if that’s the right word—what's going on in our kitchens and attempt to steer us, their masters, in the right direction. And if Khrushchev's rhetorical question sought to highlight the limitations of the consumer, today's attempts to build a "smart kitchen" highlight those of the culinary geek.  

A recent article in the British magazine the New Scientist has brought attention to several such initiatives. Meet Jinna Lei, a computer scientist at the University of Washington who has built a system in which a cook is monitored by several video cameras installed in the kitchen. These cameras are quite clever: They can recognize the depth and shape of objects in their view and distinguish between, say, apples and bowls.

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With this surveillance, chefs can be informed whenever they have deviated from their chosen recipe. Each object has a number of activities associated with it—you don't normally boil spoons or fry arugula—and the system tracks how well the current activity matches the object in use. "For example, if the system detects sugar pouring into a bowl containing eggs, and the recipe does not call for sugar, it could log the aberration," Lei told the New Scientist. To improve the accuracy of tracking, Lei is also considering adding a special thermal camera that would identify the user's hands by body heat. The quest here is to turn modern kitchen into a temple of modern-day Taylorism, with every task tracked, analyzed, and optimized. Geeks hate making errors and love sticking to algorithms. That cooking thrives on failure and experimentation, that deviating from recipes is what creates culinary innovations and pushes the cuisine forward, is discarded as whimsical and irrelevant. For many such well-meaning innovators, the context of the practice they seek to improve doesn't matter—not as long as efficiency can be increased. As a result, chefs are imagined not as autonomous virtuosi or gifted craftsmen but as enslaved robots who should never defy the commands of their operating systems.

Another project mentioned in the New Scientist is even more degrading. A group of computer scientists at Kyoto Sangyo University in Japan is trying to marry the logic of the kitchen with the logic of "augmented reality"—the fancy term for infusing our everyday environment with smart technologies. (Think of QR codes that can be scanned with a smartphone to unlock additional information or of the upcoming goggles from Google's Project Glass, which use data streams to enhance your visual field.)

To this end, the Japanese researchers have mounted cameras and projectors on the kitchen's ceiling so that they can project instructions—in the form of arrows, geometric shapes, and speech bubbles guiding the cook through each step—right onto the ingredient. Thus, if you are about to cut a fish, the system will project a virtual knife and mark where exactly that knife ought to go on the fish's body. And there's also a tiny physical robot that sits on the countertop. Thanks to the cameras, it can sense that you've stopped touching the ingredients and inquire if you want to move on to the next step in the recipe.

Now, what exactly is "augmented" in such reality? It may be augmented technologically, but it also seems diminished intellectually. At best, we are left with "augmented diminished reality." Some geeks stubbornly refuse to recognize that challenges and obstacles—of which initial ignorance about the right way to cut the fish might be one—enhance rather than undermine the human condition. To make cooking easier is not necessarily to augment it—quite the opposite. To subject it fully to the debilitating logic of efficiency is to deprive humans of the ability to achieve mastery in this activity, to make human flourishing impossible and to impoverish our lives.