Here in the West where we scrutinize, analyze, and politicize every last thing, it’s safe to say that we’d most likely have a very complicated relationship with robots. We’d wonder if they could turn against us like in Terminator; we’d wonder if they’d eventually grow more intelligent than us; if they’d replace us at our jobs; if they’d take over the world. But the reality of the future of robots may be a lot more mundane than that -- as mundane as short-order cooks, in fact.
Now, there isn't a person alive who could say that robots aren't cool, exciting, or amazing even, but because of big Hollywood movies and a deep aversion to all things unfamiliar and new, it's safe to say that the average American wouldn't want to interact with a robot on a daily basis. Those in the science and technology fields here in America, however, are following in the footsteps of technicians from Asia who may have cracked the code on making robots more appealing and less scary. The secret? Have them offer tasty food with a side of sunny disposition and unassuming, unintimidating looks.
The first "cooking robot"-- as they're called -- was released in 2006 after four long years of extensive research and nearly a quarter of a million dollars. The company responsible for this oddly captivating technological advancement, better known as the AIC-AI Cooking Robot, was Fanxing Science and Technology, a company based in Shenzhen, China. With the touch of a button, this robot was capable of cooking literally thousands of Chinese recipes from three different culinary regions.
Some of the techniques the robot was capable of included frying, baking, boiling, and steaming, though all of the tasks had to be performed on a special stove. Amazingly, the culinary robots developed in the past four years can now cook on just about any kind of stove, as long as they are shown ahead of time and the stove's inner workings and other characteristics are programmed into the robot's software.
2008 proved to be another big year for culinary robots, but this time the development was centered in Lausanne, Switzerland at the Learning Algorithms and Systems Laboratory. This is where the teachable chef, Chief Cook Robot, was made to create food items such as ham and Gruyère omelets while resembling the ever adorable Pillsbury Doughboy. Later that same year, the Osaka Museum of Creative Industries in Japan unleashed a takoyaki (octopus balls)-making robot chef that made the popular Japanese street food from scratch while wearing a chef's bandanna around his head ... or upper module, whichever you prefer.
As recently as last year, even more food-centric robots were released in Japan, most of which made their appearance at the International Food Machinery Technology Expo in Tokyo. Some of the oddest to make their debut included a large Motoman SDA-10 robot that had spatulas in place of arms and made savory pancakes (okonomiyaki) at breakneck speeds; a robot that had freakishly realistic human hands, which he used to garnish sushi; and one called the Dynamizer, whose job it was to slice cucumbers faster than humanly possible and complain about being tired and wanting to finally go home. Many considered this last bit a funny and endearing touch.
In June of last year there was another major development for robot chefs in Japan: two got their own restaurant, called Famen, in Nagoya. Some were hoping for robots as attractive and streamlined as Eve in the popular children's movie Wall-E, but what they got were uncharismatic, completely inhuman machines. The set of two giant, yellow arms prepare up to 800 bowls of ramen each day, and -- perhaps to make them more appealing -- they've also been programmed to interact in a scripted comedy routine that has them yelling at each other and sparring with knives when orders are slow.
Kenji Nagaya, Famen's owner, said that his human wait staff are basically working for the two robots because all they do is punch in the orders and deliver the food, while the two robots do all of the cooking. "The concept of this restaurant is that Robot No. 1 is the manager and boils the noodles. Robot No. 2 is the deputy manager, responsible for preparing the soup and adding the toppings," Nagaya said.
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