Last month, I headed down to San Luis Obispo to participate in a National Science Foundation-funded project analyzing the impact of automation and AI on the food system. I’d been invited to participate in a workshop headed up by Patrick Lin and Ryan Jenkins, professors at UC San Luis Obispo and the project leads.
The workshop was the first for the four-year project exploring the social and ethical impacts of automation and artificial intelligence in kitchens. The project endeavors to draw out the wide-ranging implications of this technology, exploring both the impact on commercial environments like restaurants and how automation could impact the longstanding tradition of home cooking and family meals.
“This project will help to draw out the hidden and very broad impacts of technology,” said Lin at the time of the project’s announcement. “By focusing on the trend of robot kitchens that’s just emerging from under the radar, there is still time for technical and policy interventions in order to maximize benefits and minimize harms and disruptions.”
The two-day workshop included a cross-section of academic types, chefs and food service professionals, journalists, and technology experts. It was the first of three workshops across continents to gather insights and work towards producing a report and academic curriculum centered around the intersection of food and automation and AI.
The workshop, structured as a giant whiteboard session, included expert presentations and facilitated conversations. During and after each presentation, the participants shared their thoughts on potential impacts – both direct and cascading effects – that could result from the introduction of AI in its various forms over time. While much of the conversation focused more heavily on AI in the form of automation – i.e., cooking robots – AI in other forms, such as generative AI, was also discussed.
Below are some of the key themes discussed during the two days, as well as a few of my thoughts now that I’ve had time to think through the issues since the workshop.
I’d also love to hear your thoughts on this critical topic, so please send them along!
Finally, we’ll be discussing many of these same issues at the Food AI Summit on October 25th. If this is an issue critical to you and your company, make sure to join us!
Atrophying Cooking Skills
One of the concerns raised during the workshop was the potential loss of cooking skills and culinary knowledge as we rely increasingly on automation and AI to make our meals. While it was generally recognized that robotics could take over repetitive and tedious cooking tasks, some wondered if handing over the cooking process to machines could lead to a general loss of competency in culinary arts and a homogenization of meals produced by highly automated cooking.
It’s easy to see how highly automated food prep would be extremely popular; some would hand the entire process over to the machine. However, there’s a good chance that handing off the mundane parts of cooking would give home cooks, chefs, or food workers more time to focus on creating the special touches that often make a meal great. As we have seen with the advent of digital design and art tools, there’s a possibility that those who love making food could use technology to take their work to the next level.
The Loss of Together Time
Another concern raised across the two days was the impact on shared family time by handing over meal prep and cooking to robots. Parents and other caregivers often use time in the kitchen to share lessons to help children develop motor skills, understand their heritage and develop self-confidence. Over-automation of cooking could disrupt this transfer of knowledge. Cooking has also shown many positive mental health benefits for those involved.
I think these are valid concerns, as there is a real risk of losing some of the benefits of the shared cooking process due to automation. After all, there’s no replacement for a grandchild spending time with their grandma learning how to make her special cookies and the sharing of family history that comes along with such an activity.
However, a few counterpoints. First, no one says the act of hand-making that special recipe has to be a victim of technology, and, in some ways, I think the kitchen will prove to be one of the areas where some families will insist on preserving the art and act of doing the actual cooking themselves.
And as the world becomes more digital and automated, kitchens may be a refuge for many who find the hands-on nature of making food therapeutic and fulfilling. In other words, the kitchen may be the last true ‘maker space’ left in our homes, and many will look to protect and preserve that.
Finally, average meal times shrank 5% between 2006 and 2014, a much smaller decline than we’ve seen in meal prep times as the advent of ready-to-eat meals has become more popular over the past few decades. While automation may result in faster meals, people could spend nearly as much time – or maybe more – sitting around the dinner table.
A Loss of Authenticity, Creativity, and Happy Accidents
With AI, there’s a chance recipe creation algorithms may rely too heavily on existing data patterns and therefore lack originality. There was also the concern that AI systems may limit opportunities for spontaneous creativity and the type of “happy accidents” that often lead to new recipes. One workshop participant gave an example of mistakes leading to important new dishes, like the croissant.
There was also concern that using AI to generate meal plans or recipes could result in over-standardization and homogenization, particularly if the AI systems rely too narrowly on popular recipes, which could also reduce culinary diversity.
It’s a valid concern that AI systems will generalize based on limited data sets, often creating recipes or meal plans based on popular or trending food concepts. Anyone who listens to algorithm-generated playlists by Spotify or Pandora can attest to some off-note song recommendations, and I can see how that could easily be the case with food and recipe generation. However, good technology products allow humans to reject recommendations and fine-tune algorithms, which may allow for more personalized recommendations based on a particular user’s preferences.
There’s also a real possibility that AI could lead to new and intriguing food combinations. Chef Watson and other AIs have been able to create unexpected but interesting recipes based on intelligence built into the algorithms around flavor compounds. If a restaurant or home chef can leverage heretofore inaccessible deep insights based on science and flavor research built into AI systems to create their next masterpiece, the results could be exciting.
As for the impact on cultural diversity, I think it’s important to recognize that AI systems are known to have bias problems, often hewing more closely to the worldviews of their creators and their preferred datasets. Because the world of food is one of the most important pathways for under-represented voices to connect with broader audiences, it will be critical for us to guard against the loss of accessibility and equality in the culinary world as AI and automation tools become more commonplace.
However, food AIs could be built to emphasize unique and emerging food cultures, which could be a savvy move since millennials and younger generations celebrate new food discoveries, often from cultures outside their home markets. Also, many of the creators of new food automation technology are often from markets outside our own, emphasizing food types different from our traditional fare.
This is just a few of the themes discussed during the workshop. Other themes, such as job loss and the economic impacts of automation, were also explored in detail, and I’ll have more thoughts on that later this week.
This post originally appeared on TechToday.