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The future of cooking: How a robotic chef is cooking up a crazy new kitchen

“Steaming, which is a very simple operation, is different whether you are doing it with, for example, a piece of fish, a big piece of potato, a small piece of potato, with rice,” said Mark Oleynik. “All of these are very different, believe me. You need different timing, different tools, to do it correctly. You need a robot that can reliably cook these different recipes — and more.”

When you hear about the challenges of steaming fish, your first thought may not be “a robot can solve that.” Then again, you’re not the founder and CEO of Moley Robotics, a company that’s spent the past several years building just such a culinary robot. At this year’s virtual CES, the company carried out live demos of the Moley Kitchen robot as it whipped up a plethora of recipes for the streaming public.

At an eye-watering $335,000-plus, Moley’s not cheap. A robot chef that costs the same as a family home in many places might be considered a little excessive. But Oleynik, a Russian mathematician and computer scientist, has run the numbers and believes the robot could one day be manufactured for considerably less than this. And for now, what better bragging rights are there for wealthy buyers than having Johnny 5 (or insert other fictitious robo reference) as their own personal chef?

“[Our robots] re-create the whole process of cooking a meal the way a chef would prepare a meal,” Oleynik told Digital Trends. “The same ingredients, the same appliances, the same cookware, the same timing, the same temperatures, all the same parameters. It needs to be done in a very, very reliable way, because if you have a sequence of 25 operations and just one of them fails, the whole dish fails as well.”

This is what Oleynik said makes Moley different from the countless robot demonstrations that have seen robot arms prepare food. Robot arms are typically great at any task they have to repeat multiple times. That could be anything from helping with assembly on a factory line to, say, placing a piece of produce in a frying pan, waiting a minute, and then flipping it over or removing it altogether.

But the versatility needed for a robot arm to execute every step of a recipe is something else entirely. It takes it from a mono operation machine designed to perform predefined tasks to, well, a cook.

Select your recipe, sit back and wait

The Moley Kitchen robot isn’t just called Moley Kitchen to make it clear which part of your home it goes in. The idea is that it’s pretty much a full kitchen in its own right — or, at least, some futuristic representation of a kitchen that might have once existed on an episode of The Jetsons. The main bits are the two robot hands and arms, each of which can “replicate the movements of a human hand” with impressive dexterity.

But it also consists of built-in cabinets, a refrigeration unit, motion-capture system, full set of optimized kitchen appliances, and a connected graphical user interface display that makes selecting your meal not too much more complex than pulling up an Amazon item to buy on your iPad.

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The user starts by selecting the meal that they want to eat from a growing database of, at present, around 100 dishes. This can be searched and filtered in all the ways you would expect, whether by ingredients, country of origin (“I want to have Italian recipe, I want to have French recipe, Vietnamese recipe, Japanese recipe,” Oleynik said), calories, allergens, or any other number of options. The display then shows the information about the ingredients you’ll need, which can be sent directly to your phone or ordered online.

Once you have the ingredients, you then lay out the right quantities, following along with video demonstrations like a gastronomic Peloton session. You then decide when you’ll want to eat the dish, hit “schedule,” and leave Moley to get on with its job.

“After that, you do nothing because the robot will [do it all,]” Oleynik said. “It will take the cookware from the cookware storage, which is fully automated. He will put it on the induction stove and switch it on. He will put the water into the cookware automatically. He will take ingredients from the refrigerator. He will add the ingredients. He will store, he will blend, he will mix, he will mash. If it is needed, he will put the cookware in the oven and operate it. Until the end of the recipe, you need to do zero.”

According to Oleynik, a Moley Kitchen robot ordered now will be delivered and installed in mid-2021.

Enter the iWondercook

As it turns out, Moley Robotics isn’t the only foodie robot company to be strutting its stuff at CES. Another startup, iWondercook, used this year’s CES to show off its robot chef product.

“We are doing a virtual showing but, unfortunately, it’s very tough to do virtual tasting,” Michael Lemberg, creator of iWondercook, told Digital Trends. “It will need advancements in technology before we can get food from my computer to your computer.”

Image used with permission by copyright holder

Lemberg’s vision for iWondercook is, in some ways, more humble than Moley’s. In a broad sense, iWondercook promises to do the same thing as Moley. But breakfast at a Michelin-starred restaurant and breakfast at your local eatery do the same thing too, at least on some level. This isn’t a robot chef that comes straight out of a science fiction movie. It’s more of an appliance — think Instant Pot with added robo tech. While Moley comes with a price tag that’s well into the six-figures, iWondercook is more in line with buying a new fridge. (Think somewhere between $500 and $1,000.)

For this, you get a tabletop machine that will verify ingredients’ expiration date, add ingredients one at a time, adjust cooking temperatures and times accordingly, add sauces and spices, carry out assorted actions like stirring, and then notify you once the meal is ready for you to tuck in. Again, no user participation will be required, Lemberg said.

Healthier than takeout

What separates the two, and helps explain the difference in price tag, is the way they do this respective food prep. With iWondercook, the user buys special recipe boxes, similar to those made by Hello Fresh or Blue Apron, which have been made machine readable and preparable.

From both a robotics and A.I. perspective, this greatly constrains the problem: There’s no need for comparable machine vision, the mastery of dozens of techniques, the ability to cook anything the user wishes. Instead, the idea is to provide nutritious meals (Lemberg calls them “food cartridges”) that can work within the confines of what the robot is able to do. It’s food prep reverse engineered.

“Everything [is] delivered to the consumer in a single package,” Lemberg said. “[The user] just slides it inside, presses a button, and the machine takes care of the rest. That’s what we’ve been able to come up with. We have specially developed digital recipes that our robotic chef is able to execute step-by-step.”

So what makes this different from, say, buying a ready meal and putting it in the oven for the best part of an hour? That, too, will net the user a plate of hot food with minimal effort. The answer, Lemberg, said, comes down to nutrition.

“[All the ready-made meals] you buy in the supermarket are precooked,” he said. “When you put it in an oven for 45 minutes, you don’t cook it; you reheat something that’s been cooked previously, then most likely frozen. Every time you do that, freezing something and then reheating it, you lose a fifth of the nutritional value. With the meals sold in the supermarkets, you probably end up getting 25 percent of the nutritional value compared to a meal that you would cook yourself from scratch.”

With iWondercook he said, meals are different. “In our case, the food is cooked only once — just before you eat it. It’s freshly prepared from fresh ingredients. Because of that, you keep all the nutritional value of the raw ingredients.”

Lemberg said iWondercook will hopefully go on the market by the end of 2021. Meals compatible with it are planned to retail for $8 to $12, bringing it in line with other recipe box delivery services.

A market ripe for disruption

The culinary world is changing in a big way thanks to technology. There are vertical farms capable of churning out leafy greens all year-round with the aid of robot farmers and LEDs. There are companies making lab-grown meat and dairy, which provide the exact same foodstuff but without the growing and slaughter of any actual cattle. Then there are delivery robot companies like Starship Technologies, automated burger prep courtesy of Miso Robotics, and apps that let you order up just about any meal you can think of from your smartphone.

Image used with permission by copyright holder

But until now, the act of physically preparing a meal in your own home hasn’t changed too much. Moley Robotics and iWondercook are two startups in this space hoping to capture even a small piece of a market that’s ripe for disruption. Entrepreneurs are constantly looking for areas where things take up valuable time or contain an element of what, for most of us, might be considered drudgery. This is, after all, a big part of the reason a lot of us eat out in restaurants or order takeout.

“[I agree that] people like to cook for themselves occasionally, but not everyone wants to cook for themselves and their families three times a day, seven days a week,” Lemberg said. “We are not saying stop cooking. That’s not our goal. If a person likes to cook, great. But if that person likes to cook once a week, but still needs to eat [an evening meal] seven times a week, that leaves us six more days when they could order our meals.”

Coming soon to a kitchen near you

This is prime real estate for the right company to move in on. There’s a chance that the company will be neither Moley nor iWondercook, of course. CES functions as runway fashion for new technology. Some of it’s just plain weird and will never make it any further than the equivalent of eyebrow-raising fashion blogs. But other times, it gives an early glimpse of revolutionary technology that, eventually, will make up the unremarkable fabric of our daily lives.

Image used with permission by copyright holder

Cutting-edge technology means that we can now work from home without having to physically visit an office (the future of work is weird and fascinating!). Self-driving cars mean that we will soon be able to concentrate on other things during the time that we do have to travel somewhere. Any number of apps and tech companies allow us to perform tasks — from searching the world’s information banks to ordering our shopping — with the minimum of fuss.

Soon, some company is going to nail the challenge of preparing us fresh, nutritious meals at home without our having to labor over a stove. Both Oleynik and Lemberg agree that it won’t be long before some version of this technology is found in a large number of homes around the world. If the small sample of startups in this article, and at this year’s CES, are anything to go by, this is going to be a hotly contested space.

And we, as the humans getting fresh, high-quality meals, should be the ones reaping all the delicious benefits.

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Luke Dormehl
I'm a UK-based tech writer covering Cool Tech at Digital Trends. I've also written for Fast Company, Wired, the Guardian…
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