In the early days of microprocessors, people selling home computers tried to come up with reasons to have them in the home. The real reason you got one was hobby computing, but the companies wanted to push other purposes. A famous one was use in the kitchen. The computer could story your recipe file, and wonder of wonders, could change the amounts of the ingredients based on how many servings you wanted to make.
This never caught on, but computers have come a long way. But still, I mostly see nonsense applications promoted. For example, boosters of RFID tell us that our fridges will be able to track when things went in the fridge, and when it’s time to buy more milk. We should give up huge amounts of privacy to figure out when to order more milk?
With that track record, I should stay away from the area, but let me propose some interesting approaches in the kitchen.
The cooking area should have a screen, of course. Screens are already in the kitchen to watch TV. While you could (and would) put digital recipes up on the screen, I imagine going further, and having TV cooking shows, where you watch a chef prepare a dish. You would be able to pause, rewind and do everything that digital video does, but the show would also come along with encoded instructions tagged to points in the video. When the recipe calls for cooking for 5 minutes, the computer would start appropriate timers.
The computer should have a speech interface, and a good one, allowing you to call out for timers, and to name ingredients and temperatures. More on that later.
The first thing I would like to see is smart, digital wireless scales in a lot of places. A general one on the counter of course, but quite possibly also built into the rack above the burner which holds the pot. You can get scales built into spoons and scoops now, and they could be bluetooth.
These scales would be smart and fast. You would not have to zero them. Slap a bowl on the scale and the sudden change in weight would let the computer know you’ve just put a bowl down. With fast readings it can tell the difference between that and pouring something in, even really fast. Besides, over time it will know the weight of all your pans and bowls. (Of course, it will display the weight of the bowl for you in case it made a mistake, but it will also display the weight of what you add to it.)
Now you can add an ingredient and see the weight. If it knows what the ingredient is, it can also display the volume, calculated from the weight. If there is a target amount to add, it can show you with graphics and also use a rising audio tone to tell you when you are getting closer to, right on or over the target amount. If it doesn’t know what the ingredient is, it can show you what volume it would be for a raft of your most common ingredients — water like liquids, oil, flour, rice, etc.
With a nice speech interface you can say the name of the ingredient, or the target weight, or just watch the one you know it to be. But if you are following a recipe in the computer, it probably just told you, “Add 250g of corn starch” and so it is fully aware of what you are adding, and how much it should weigh.
To make this even better, the computer should have a camera looking over the stove and work surfaces. The camera should include a lower resolution thermal imager able to determine surface temperatures via deep infrared. But through colour and texture mapping, it should also be able to identify a lot of ingredients, or classes of ingredients.
It will also know the weights of ingredients you add without measuring, and be able to calculate other things based on those. Knowing the weight and dimensions of a cut of meat, and knowing the temperature of the pan and the temperature of the meat surface, as well as the colour, it might be able to determine how well cooked things are. In so many cases good cooking is knowing exactly how long to cook things, and not fussing with them while it happens. The same might apply inside ovens and grills.
Of course, you can always figure that out with a probe thermometer, so the system should have heat-tolerant bluetooth probe thermometers with thin probes that can be inserted in lots of ingredients. (I wonder if you could manage to power these off thermocouple power, if the chips inside get low power enough. The thermocouple could charge a capacitor, letting the radio send out a burst of temperature information as often as there is enough charge.)
The next sensor to add are digital chemical sensors, sometimes called digital noses. Above the stove and in the ovens, obviously, but quite possibly they could also be built into pans and pots, or be small devices dropped into dishes. In many cases, done-ness is a matter of chemistry, and certain molecules will be present in certain concentrations at the perfect point. These sensors are going to get better and better — soon they will be better than a top chef at knowing when the food is perfectly prepared, especially combined with temperature, colour, and deep infrared imaging.
Of course, one of the most popular kitchen appliances today, the rice cooker, is popular because its ability to sense temperature and humidity lets it know exactly when rice is properly done, better than a chef can.
The computer will even be able to do some basic calorimetry, knowing the parameters of the pans, the heat output of the burners and other rules. The computer should be able to adjust and turn off the burners when the food is just right. (At the very least, even today’s simple chemical sensors and burner control could stop you from ever having food get burned or boil over.)
We might even see, for the lazy chef, a simple robot arm which can turn over a container of ingredients into a dish when the time is right, allowing you to work on other things if you want. Over time we may see other robotics but that’s another level. If you have a water tap at the stove, as many fancy kitchens have, its valve could be under computer control so that it is able to squirt an exact amount of water into your pan.
Ideally the programmers of the cooking show will be programming in all sorts of rules for these controls and sensors.
What about the joy of cooking? Well, I think such tools would provide a great way to learn how to cook new and very tasty dishes, and you might not need the computer’s guidance after getting some practice. And they won’t stop you from experimenting, in fact they may help. Even a good chef knows a thermometer is a vital tool to making really great food. I also expect such tools to appear in commercial kitchens, where the master chef sets up the program, and junior chefs follow it.
When done, our scales will even help you divide up dishes evenly. No help with the clean-up until the robots come, though.