Robot cooks still in a raw state

While I agree that the food industry stands to make significant gains in productivity through automation, it seems premature to place so much faith in robotic cooking machines at this point in time ("Food industry welcomes plan to reduce reliance on manpower"; Sept 10).

For one thing, cooking requires a certain degree of intuition and finesse, especially when it comes to complex dishes and select culinary genres.

Of course, robots are more than capable of taking on the more menial tasks in the kitchen, such as the preparation of ingredients and seasonings, or mass production of basic foodstuffs such as dumplings and rice balls.

Even then, there still exists a certain disparity in quality - for instance, many have noted the inferior taste of machine-made dimsum and the poor texture of machine-prepared sushi rice.

Restaurateurs should be mindful that the pursuit of efficiency may backfire when this results in appreciably lower customer satisfaction and loyalty.

What is acceptable in a mass-market environment may not be desirable in the premium segment.

Second, chefs tap a vast repository of skill and experience to think on their feet and make instantaneous judgment calls, adjusting their recipes and techniques as and when needed to account for the highly variable properties of ingredients and condiments, to achieve a degree of consistency.

As it currently stands, computers lack the dynamism that a good cook must possess, while robotic arms still struggle to match the dexterity of human hands. Techniques to assess the quality of ingredients on the fly remain expensive and impractical.

It is conceivable that restaurants may one day possess sophisticated cooking robots capable of perfectly replicating the human touch, and computing precise timing and temperature control.

However, this sort of advanced technology is still many years away from being deployable in a working kitchen, let alone being economically feasible.

Hence, there is reason to believe that the kitchen will remain the preserve of human beings for some time to come. If and when robotics becomes sufficiently advanced, I am confident that it will work in a complementary capacity, rather than as an outright replacement for human hands.

Paul Chan Poh Hoi

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 19, 2016, with the headline 'Robot cooks still in a raw state'. Print Edition | Subscribe