Me and Robo-chef

The ultimate kitchen gadget

SOME people relish putting on an apron and cooking dinner. Others, though, find cookery a black art best delegated to a domestic helpmeet, a microwave oven or, failing either of those, the local home-delivery service. But Mark Oleynik, a Russian-born scientist and engineer now based in London, hopes to change this state of affairs by introducing a further option: a robot cook that is as good as a Cordon Bleu chef but which can be installed in an average house. A prototype of his idea, unveiled this week at an industrial fair in Hanover, Germany, has been demonstrating its culinary prowess in public, by whipping up an excellent crab bisque.

Specialised cooking devices, such as Thermomix, made by Vorwerk, a German firm, do already exist. These, though, are essentially food-processors with bells and whistles. Dr Oleynik has taken a different approach. Instead of building a complex food-processor, he has set out to make his machine resemble a mini-kitchen, complete with conventional appliances and utensils. This can, in principle, be used to cook more or less anything. A pair of dexterous robotic hands, suspended from the ceiling, assemble the ingredients, mix them, and cook them in pots and pans as required, on a hob or in an oven. When the dish is ready, they then serve it with the flourish of a professional.

The robochef’s hands are human-sized, and have jointed fingers and thumbs. They are made by Shadow Robot, another British firm, which has supplied similar hands to several research organisations, including America’s space agency, NASA. Teams from Stanford University, in California, and the Sant’Anna School of Advanced Studies, in Pisa, Italy, also worked on the project. Dr Oleynik’s company, Moley Robotics, hopes to have the first commercial model on sale in 2017, with a price tag of around £10,000 ($15,000).

The machine’s finesse comes because its hands are copying the actions of a particular human chef, who has cooked the recipe specially, in order to provide a template for the robot to copy. The chef in question wears special gloves, fitted with sensors, for this demonstration. Dr Oleynik’s team also shoot multiple videos of it, from different angles. These various bits of data are then synthesised into a three-dimensional representation of what the chef did while preparing the dish. That is turned into an algorithm which can drive the automated kitchen.

To make the crab bisque it is turning out in Hanover, the robot has copied Tim Anderson. Mr Anderson was the winner, in 2011, of “Master Chef”, a cookery programme popular on British television. The robot faithfully follows Mr Anderson’s every movement, carefully melting butter in a saucepan and using an electric whisk with precisely the same motions that he employs. Mr Anderson thought the robot would mess things up, but he has been impressed by its ability to capture the subtleties involved in preparing the dish. “Small things matter in cooking,” he says, “and the robot is very consistent.”

Sacre bleu!

Dr Oleynik’s plan is to support his automated kitchen with an online library of more than 2,000 recipes. And, because it is copying the idiosyncrasies of particular people, the service he plans will let a user select not only a dish but also its creator—in effect, bringing a virtual version of a celebrity chef into the user’s house to cook it for him. Dr Oleynik is also working on ways for home chefs to upload their own favourite recipes, to save them the trouble of cooking those recipes themselves.

In the current prototype, the ingredients need to be prepared in advance (the robot has not yet been trusted with knives) and placed at preset positions for it to pick up. That, though, should change with future versions. These will include fridges, in which a stock of ingredients can be stored and selected by the robot as required. With further development the automated kitchen will be made more compact and gain more equipment. And it can also, if desired, be switched to manual, because all of the implements and utensils involved are pieces of normal kitchenware. Indeed, Dr Oleynik thinks that with proper programming the kitchen could actually become a cookery teacher—helping neophyte chefs by giving them practical demonstrations of particular operations.

The robot kitchen is not, admittedly, perfect. One design flaw is that although the prototype is programmed to put used utensils into a washing-up bowl, it does not actually go on to do the washing up—a drawback often associated with human chefs, as well, it must be said. To turn the robo-chef into the mass-market product he hopes it will become, Dr Oleynik is therefore planning to add a dishwasher.

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