Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Talk about "Iron Chef"

According to the NYTimes, robotics researchers around the world have been working on developing robots capable of cooking (or at least, serving) food. Check out the "Snackbot," for example.
Snackbot is a mobile robot, about the size of a very small human, that rolls around on wheels, and will be delivering snacks to students, faculty, and office workers at Carnegie Mellon University. A Snackbot research team of faculty, graduate students, and undergraduates from more than three departments at Carnegie Mellon created Snackbot as a platform for studying human-robot interaction in the real world.

Snackbot is meant as an ongoing platform for research. The Snackbot will support research into robust autonomous operation in office environments. Our efforts range from multi-sensor fusion algorithms for perception, reasoning about dynamic spaces,communicating with people through verbal and non-verbal mechanisms, and planning with incomplete information.

The research will allow the robot to navigate through congested areas in a socially acceptable fashion, detect individual people moving near the robot, recognize when someone that the robot knows approaches it, and autonomously learn to recognize new objects. Snackbot will support research in the fields of design and Human-Computer Interaction (HCI) on using sound, motion, and form for human-robot interaction. Snackbot will support behavioral science research on such topics as personalization and people’s relationships with interactive objects, and research on snack services drawn from behavioral economics. (source)

But Snackbot seems like a pizza-ordering bachelor compared to the AIC-AI Cooking Robot. It is "able, at the touch of a button, to fry, bake, boil and steam its way through thousands of Chinese delicacies from at least three culinary regions" (source). But this is just the beginning.
Last June, at the International Food Machinery and Technology Expo in Tokyo, a broad-shouldered Motoman SDA-10 robot with spatulas for arms made okonomiyaki (savory pancakes) for attendees; another robot grabbed sushi with an eerily realistic hand; and still another, the Dynamizer, sliced cucumbers at inhumanly fast speeds and occasionally complained about being tired and wanting to go home. (source)

A complaining chef bot? That's a nice touch, but check this out:
Then, a month later in Nagoya, Japan, the Famen restaurant opened, with two giant yellow robot arms preparing up to 800 bowls of ramen a day. When it’s slow, the robots act out a scripted comedy routine and spar with knives. (source)

I think I would go just to see the robots spar with knives. That would be worth it. A guy I know who works in robotics tells me that most of the Sushi served in Tokyo is actually made by robots in centralized Sushi Factories and then delivered by truck fresh each morning. Human attendants feed the machine fish and other ingredients cut to standard shapes and the robot does the rest.

But the real goal of this current generation of Iron Chefs is not simply to make food efficiently, that they can do. The new frontier is to interact with humans while doing it. One bar-bot named Cynthia made drinks in a London Bar until the bar was sold. "She whirls into action, pouring drinks to perfection, mixing them, recounting awful jokes and chuckling to herself while frightened customers feel grateful she’s not allowed out from behind the bar" (source). Does that sound like a drink you want to have?


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