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August 29, 2012

Slate: Stay Out of My Kitchen, Robots

"Don't you have a machine that puts food into the mouth and pushes it down?" the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev sarcastically asked Richard Nixon in the now infamous Kitchen Debate of 1959. That memorable exchange took place at the opening of the American National Exhibition in Moscow, where Nixon, then vice president, went to promote the latest innovations of the decadent West.

Today, even the most Pampered Chef has no such food-pushing machine, but the quest to make our kitchens smarter continues unabated. Today's technologies are no longer the dumb, passive appliances of the 1950s. Some of them feature tiny and sophisticated sensors that "understand" — if that's the right word — what's going on in our kitchens and attempt to steer us, their masters, in the right direction. And if Khrushchev's rhetorical question sought to highlight the limitations of the consumer, today's attempts to build a "smart kitchen" highlight those of the culinary geek.

A recent article in the British magazine the New Scientist has brought attention to several such initiatives. Meet Jinna Lei, a computer scientist at the University of Washington who has built a system in which a cook is monitored by several video cameras installed in the kitchen. These cameras are quite clever: They can recognize the depth and shape of objects in their view and distinguish between, say, apples and bowls.

With this surveillance, chefs can be informed whenever they have deviated from their chosen recipe. Each object has a number of activities associated with it — you don't normally boil spoons or fry arugula — and the system tracks how well the current activity matches the object in use.

"For example, if the system detects sugar pouring into a bowl containing eggs, and the recipe does not call for sugar, it could log the aberration," Lei told the New Scientist. To improve the accuracy of tracking, Lei is also considering adding a special thermal camera that would identify the user's hands by body heat.

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