Can a Robot Learn to Cook?

The art of the perfect chicken soup comes from hands-on experience and social interaction. If robots master that, what separates them from us?

Rosie Robot-615.jpg

The Jetsons

Everyone's coming over to watch the big game. You've got beer, a giant high-definition television, and a well-deserved reputation for serving wings hotter than Dante's eighth circle of hell. Unfortunately, you are pressed for time. Wouldn't it be great if a machine like Rosey from The Jetsons could quickly prepare them? Maybe you could even pass off the dish as your own!

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Then again, maybe not. Would Rosey's version taste like yours, or would her rendition expose your duplicity? Could she cut the chicken into the right size parts and ensure your friends don't choke on bone chips? Would Rosey know when the chicken pieces hit the ideal state of crispiness without being raw inside? Most importantly, could she discern when the spice Rubicon was crossed? These questions all revolve around one issue: Can Rosey can acquire tacit knowledge?

Contemporary discussions of tacit knowledge owe a debt to Michael Polanyi, a scientist and philosopher who famously observed: "We know more than we can tell." Use chopsticks? Go mushrooming or fly-fishing? Know how to pick the right bottle of wine, or how to be a charming dinner guest who tells the right jokes and not mortify your host? These skills use tacit knowledge. It's what enables us to appreciate what something means, given context.

While we all possess lots of tacit knowledge and couldn't conduct our daily affairs without it, experts use it as their secret weapon. In Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking, Malcolm Gladwell described how experts rely on intuition. Without deliberating over formal decision-making procedures, they can look at a problem and immediately have the "aha" moment that reveals the solution. Although this ability is immensely powerful, it isn't magical or innate. After prolonged and committed experience, experts develop superior pattern-recognition ability that lets them see, at glance, how new situations resemble remembered ones.

Experts aren't unique in this regard. All humans require extensive hands-on experience or social interaction to develop tacit knowledge. As every cook knows, mechanically following a recipe will only take you so far. Nevertheless, Gary McMurray, chief of the Food Processing Division of Georgia Tech's Research Institute, believes robots will acquire the tacit knowledge needed to debone and butcher a chicken. While many of us had a parent -- or other mentor -- guide us toward the basic tacit knowledge required to cook, the secret sauce for his project is a 3-D imaging system that quickly measures and calculates the dimension of each individual chicken before the robot carves away. How can his "intelligent cutting" project lose? It has the support of custom algorithms underwritten by complex mathematical equations.

McMurray's team realizes they have to solve many adaptive challenges. After all, every chicken has a different muscle structure, different joint segments, and carries a different weight. Despite this complexity, an experienced human chicken processor can butcher 1,000 chickens an hour, immediately judging how and where to cut without wasting meat. And here's where the difference between person and machine becomes salient. Shannon Heath, spokesperson for the world's leading chicken processing equipment, Meyn Food Processing Technology BV, says that technology "can't quite match how closely a human can cut to the bone."

Presented by

Evan Selinger and Evelyn J. Kim

Evan Selinger is an associate professor of philosophy at Rochester Institute of Technology and a fellow at the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technology. Evelyn J. Kim writes about food, sustainability, and science at Edo Ergo Sum.

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