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."
So far, McMurray's team has experienced success with the key technological components. Significant as this victory is, it remains a far cry from developing a fully integrated system, which, itself, wouldn't be the final step. Vangelis's Chariots of Fire musical score shouldn't play until the robot is rolled out of lab and into the real world, where new skills might be needed. Still, McMurray told us he's optimistic about the future and even is considering making commercial devices.
For the sake of argument, let's say McMurray is right and it is only a matter of time before technology cuts chickens with the same speed, dexterity and accuracy as humans. Indeed, glimpses of the future are already here. Think someone hand shredded your mozzarella? Nope, a machine did. China's got a series of noodle-bots that can hand-slice noodles into pots of boiling water, and the Japanese have used mechanic sushi makers for years. But will technology ever replicate the deft touch of China's best noodle pullers? Or, Jiro Ono, Japan's 85 year old, three-starred Michelin sushi master?