Artificial Intelligence in the Kitchen

From our May 5 newsletter:

Artificial Intelligence (AI) is a divisive concept, as partly captured in the idea of whether we should welcome or fear the “robot overlords” (adapted from the 1977 film adaptation of HG Wells’ Empire of the Ants, in which Joan Collins reacts to the threat of giant ants out to take over the world with “I, for one, welcome our new insect overlords”).

In the restaurant world, digital innovations designed to make the lives of both diners and staff easier have been around for years already, from being able to order off interactive table surfaces at eateries like Inamo in London, to restaurants in China replacing waitstaff (and noodle makers) with robots, not to mention IBM’s “chef” version of Watson – the “supercomputer” that famously beat human contestants on the TV quiz show Jeopardy in 2011 – which allows both chefs and home cooks to generate innovative recipes based on a database that houses thousands of possible combinations of ingredients that none of us would imagine work, but which are scientifically compatible according to their flavour profiles (Watson has even “authored” a cookbook).

Potentially of more interest to diners is the recent unveiling of “Google Duplex”, an automated system that can make phone calls to schedule appointments at a hair salon, or reserve a table at a restaurant on your behalf. The alleged breakthrough here is that rather than sounding as robotic as an Alexa (Google’s personal assistant who can apparently also make you a better cook) or a Siri, this implementation of AI is able to interact in a way that makes it virtually indistinguishable from a human voice, complete with rhetorical  imperfections like “hmm” and “uh”.

While there’s been a lot of excitement about this new development, it’s also worth keeping in mind that the convenience it promises is not much more far-reaching than what we are already able to do when making a restaurant reservation online through services such as Dineplan or Zomato.

Logging in and clicking a few buttons on a reservation website doesn’t need to take much longer than asking your personal robot to make a call to restaurant X to book a table for 5 people on Thursday 31st May at 7pm – particularly if you also have to explain all the possible alternatives (different times, days, restaurants) in case your preferred venue isn’t able to accommodate your party at the specified time, just so your robot can have a “human” conversation with the person at the other end of the phone about how flexible you are (or aren’t).

Don’t get us wrong: the achievements of Google’s engineers are nothing short of astounding, and no doubt AI will only continue to become more and more sophisticated. But in an age of fake news and the potential negative consequences of removing real human beings from the equation, maybe we should also be a little cautious about celebrating the opportunity to not interact with others for the sake of “efficiency”. Besides, we can probably all agree that there’s nothing worse than a fake smile.