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Are Robotic Chefs The Future?

Jan 2, 2017

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Imagine a day when, from the comfort of your home and with a few mouse clicks, you can have a Michelin-starred chef's recipe prepared for you right there and then - by a robotic kitchen. Not only would the robot cook up a scrumptious dinner, but it would also clean up after itself, leaving you with nothing to do besides eat.

That dream is soon set to become reality thanks to a London-based company called Moley Robotics. Founded by Russian-born Mark Oleynik (who is CEO), the robo-chef will be launched on the market in 2018. It already exists in prototype form, with dozens of recipes in its library. It looks much like any other kitchen - with a hob, a sink, an oven and hanging kitchen utensils - only it also has two giant robotic arms with five-fingered hands that do all the work.

In preparation for an upcoming issue of Frontier Tech Investor, we visited Oleynik in his lab. I thought I'd share a few insights from that conversation with you today. We were lucky enough to witness the robo-chef in action as it made BBC MasterChef winner Tim Anderson's crab bisque.

The ingredients (crab, cherry tomatoes, shallots, tarragon, butter, salt and pepper) were all pre-prepared and placed on the counter next to the hob. The robotic hand hit the hob's "on" button on the hob; dropped the butter into a pan, which it stirred with a spatula; added shallots and salt and pepper; stirred, waited, then poured in a jar of cherry tomatoes that sizzled in the pan. It plopped the emptied jar and other dirty utensils in the sink. Later, the shredded crab was added, as were chicken stock and vermouth, and a blender was briefly used. The resulting crab bisque tasted homemade and good.

We took the opportunity to ask Oleynik how he came up with the robotic kitchen.

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Q: What is your background? Where did you grow up?

A: I'm a computer science engineer and a mathematician, and I grew up in a small town near St. Petersburg. After that, I moved to St. Petersburg itself, where I studied computer science, programming and systems engineering for six years at an aerospace university.

I spent a period of my life in computer science and programming. We started a company in the early 1990s, integrating different equipment and making programming for manufacturing. It was high-level rather than low-level automation, mostly focused on operating equipment and calculating resources. We made automation for different equipment. That gave me the right background.

In 2008, I moved to London, because I had a lot of projects around the world, and it was a good city for my family to be based in. I spent most of the time on different innovative projects. I invented a couple of things, such as a big data analysis system. It's not amplified yet, but maybe one day we can do that as well. It [handles] any kind of medical big data.

After that, I invented the robotic kitchen. The idea came [to me] quite a long time ago, but the first implementation was in 2014.

Q: Why did you do it?

A: Because it's interesting, and because it's important for the future.

When we dream about the future, we want to have any dish and try it immediately in our home. We want to have everything [that's] possible [to have] immediately, as soon as we need it. This architecture can give you that option.

At first, it looked a little futuristic and not possible. But when we built the architecture, everybody understood that it was possible. This is the first version.

Q: This is a luxury product. It's not going to hit the market until 2018. Few people can afford it.

A: I think it's a luxury only because the components are quite expensive - not because you're positioning this product as a luxury product. If the component is built at the required price level, this could be a mass-market product. The functionality is interesting for everybody, not only for the luxury segment.

If you start from zero, from scratch, and make some new concept, you can't do it cheaply. The question is how to optimise the price through economies of scale. What's the market response, what are the market requirements, what's the customer feedback? There are a lot of questions. You need to fit everything into one product and make it scalable. When you start scaling it, the prices go down quite quickly.

When we compare the component prices to what they were five years ago, there is quite a big gap. They will continue dropping. A lot of different competitors will come onto the market. That's given us quite a strong feeling that in five years' time, component prices will have been squeezed dramatically.

Q: Presumably you've done some market research to assess your potential market?

A: We've done the primary market research. We're going to continue this research deeper this year.

I see the present moment as being like 1980, when the first computers were making the first steps inside the home. Apple brought out the first computer and started selling it to customers. It was not so efficient, not so quick, not so nice-looking, but it brought us something new in our lifestyle. Now everybody has computers, and everybody uses them on a daily basis.

Q: So you think this product will also be mass-market?

A: I think so, yes, because it's not only about cooking. The cooking is a good first application, just to show that it's not a toy. But [the robot kitchen] is also something which gives you a lot of value in your everyday life.

There are different groups of people: genius chefs, people who have some skills in cooking, people who don't have any skills in cooking. We're trying to build a concept which gives value to all of those groups of people. That was the main idea when we built the product.

People who can cook, who have a lot of ideas and experience in cooking, can generate the recipe database. People who don't have these skills but like nice food, can use the database and transfer this knowledge to their flat.

For now, [to have great chef-quality food] you need to visit a restaurant. Cooking skills are quite unique. You need to go to different cities to try different foods and different variations of food. You need to book a nice restaurant many days in advance.

We want to optimise this and make it more global and more accessible for people. At the moment, you only have one way of accessing this knowledge: going to the restaurant. With time, you will definitely have access to this knowledge from your own kitchen. You will have the extra option of having freshly cooked meals inside your home, on demand - which is important, and a big step into the future. That's not possible without this technology.

Q: Do you cook yourself?

A: No. I can't. I'm not talented. I cannot create nice food, but I can recognise it. Sometimes I love to eat something specific that I like and that I [have] tasted before. Sometimes I want to eat something really new and have a new experience.

Also, I think it's important to keep up family traditions. I want to continue to eat the food which I ate in my childhood, when my mother cooked.

Q: What is your immediate market going to be?

A: High-end kitchens. We want to create kitchens for high-end users, because the price level will be quite high [at the start.] It could be up to $100,000 for a whole kitchen, including everything: the dishwasher, all the equipment, the furniture. This is what we're planning and can foresee today [price-wise]. We're trying to optimise the price level.

Q: Who's your market?

A: Clients who already spend this kind of money on their kitchens. It's people who will recognise what's available on the market at this price range: people who are buying expensive property, for example. Many people buy properties in London for a couple of million pounds.

Q: Have you tested the market?

A: We already did research and conducted interviews. We have a lot of interest generated from our technology.

Q: Are these people who work long hours?

A: Usually, it's busy people who work long hours and have a good level of income, but don't have time to cook, or want to have something which gives them a lot of options.

Q: Do you expect many thousands of menus and recipes to be uploaded onto your database in the future? How many?

A: There is no limit. We have structured the [search] filters to find the recipe you want.

You can say "I want to have a low-calorie dish" or "I want to have a dish with chicken" or "I want a low-calorie dish with chicken which is steamed or fried" or "I want a chicken dish which is low-calorie, steamed and by chef Tim Anderson." You can do a lot of filtering and generally find what you want.

You can also choose the country - for example, Vietnamese food, Indian food, Japanese food or Chinese food. Again, the ingredients should be more or less the same. I mean the basic ingredients.

Q: The robotic kitchen makes cooked food, not sushi or sashimi, right?

A: I think we can make sushi and sashimi. It's a question of training the robot. If it can do what chefs can do, one day it will be possible.

Q: But you will have to teach the robot so many millions of combinations.

A: It's not that many, when you start structuring it. It's not millions or thousands of combinations, it's hundreds.

Q: Why do you go after high-end chefs? Because your market is high-end?

A: No, because high-end chefs do things perfectly. There is a kind of average-quality dish that a lot of people can cook, and there is a unique combination that is very tasty and has a nice consistency. It's the difference between a genius piano player and an average piano player. Everybody can play the same melody, but it makes a big difference when you're listening. In one situation, you are feeling a lot of emotion, and in the other, you are feeling some emotion, but it's not very strong.

Between the dish by a master chef and the dish by me, there's a big difference, even if you use absolutely the same ingredients and take absolutely the same products. You will try the two dishes and you will see a big gap - huge.

Q: This crab bisque looks pretty easy to make.

A: Not for me. Maybe for somebody who understands how to cook things.

Q: Are chefs offering you their recipes?

A: This is not established right now. We have a couple of collaborations with big chefs. We will create the first library.

It's a very important model for the future. The chef who created the dish and who is very popular and whose dish people love will have a very good revenue stream out of it. Right now, they can sell the dish in their restaurant to hundreds of people. If this technology is going to be a mass-market technology, they can sell it to millions. It's a big opportunity for them. Every time people spend $1 for the recipe, the chef will receive something.

Q: So it will work like iTunes in the music industry?

A: Yes.

Q: I imagine this project needed a lot of seed money?

A: Initially, we had a round when we raised up to £4 million from the seed investors. They weren't venture capitalists, they were more high-wealth individuals interested in the new type of technology products on the market.Venture capitalists usually invest in the revenue stage. They're not willing to take extra risk.

As for our high-wealth investors, I'm not willing to disclose their names, but it's people who believe in this and also want to be customers. They're international, not based in the UK. Two of them are Russian, and others are from Europe, mostly.

Right now, we're in the crowdfunding stage. We are raising £1 million through the Seedrs platform in the UK. We also have a couple of strategic investors who want to invest quite a big amount of money for development. And we also have a number of development partners who are willing to give us in-kind technology investment.

This gives us enough space to take the next step and make the first product delivery in 2018.

Q: Have you contributed yourself and put in some of your own money?

A: In the first stage, definitely. And in this stage, I will put in funding as well. This is the normal way when you're inventing and developing something.

Q: If you look in a crystal ball and this is really successful, will you do an IPO one day?

A: Yes, why not? It should be a global story. Let's imagine that we can sell the kitchen at the same price as any other kitchen. You can choose the kitchen without the robotic mode, or the kitchen with and without the robotic mode. That way, you can do both - cook in the normal way, and in the automatic way. That's why I think this product should be very successful in the future.

Q: Are you just aiming your kitchen at individuals or also at care homes and hospitals?

A: We are going to develop commercial kitchens for hospitals and hotels. But it's the next step, because the commercial kitchen is a bit more complicated. It's bigger; it's much more functional; you need to do quite a big amount of cooking. The architecture might be much more complicated, with maybe a number of robotic arms inside. That's why we want to build a little bit later.

Q: Would your market be Europe?

A: We are looking at the European market now, because we are here in western Europe. We understand the requirements here, and we understand our customers here. But we will take the decision about the next market a little bit later, when we release the first product. We will receive the market response and the feedback from our customers.

It's like computers: you build the first computer; you start selling it; you have the new technology available; you have the customer feedback available; and you build the new model and make it more functional and interesting from the market perspective.

Q: What if there's a computer glitch, or the robotic arms start being menacing?

A: We have a couple of safety features. We've created a protective screen which should be closed when the robot is cooking. Even if the robotic arm makes a mistake, it's not dangerous for the human.

Q: How do you define the purpose of robots in our future life?

A: From our company's perspective, the future of robotics is to do much more than what people can do by themselves.

Without this machine, you cannot do 99% of what this machine can do. You don't have the knowledge and experience. You can try to cook 200 recipes. I'm not sure somebody in the world can do that. This machine can cook thousands - more, much more.

Q: So you're bringing big data into the kitchen.

A: Yes, actually. It's not pure big data: it's knowledge. This is something which has value in the world - people's creative knowledge.

Data is only data. If it's pure data, it's not so interesting from my point of view. The most interesting is unique data, which is created by the human. That's why our position is different from the position of a lot of academic researchers.

Q: If your project should fail, and you should fail to find a market for it, what will you do?

A: It will work in the future. It could fail at the level of some components, but not fail in general, because there is no other architecture [of its kind].

Q: There is no other robotic chef?

A: There is no other architecture that can make an identical dish to that of a human chef. There are a lot of basic things, like a stand-up cooking machine which can make one dish or two dishes, but nothing that can cook something that is definitely the same quality as a master chef's.

We are protected by our patent portfolio. I don't see any other architecture with this level of flexibility.

Q: You're putting all your life efforts and energies and passions into this.

A: I like it. I have fun with it, I love it, and I invented it.

The market is huge. If you assume that this can have the price level of a normal kitchen, I don't think you can argue against there being a huge market. Everybody will choose this option instead of other options. This option is much more functional.

Please note: This article was first published in Capital and Conflict on December 30, 2016.

Nick O'Connor is a writer and editor at Moneyweek. He is also the publisher of Exponential Investor.

Disclaimer: The views mentioned above are of the author only. Data and charts, if used, in the article have been sourced from available information and have not been authenticated by any statutory authority. The author and Equitymaster do not claim it to be accurate nor accept any responsibility for the same. The views constitute only the opinions and do not constitute any guidelines or recommendation on any course of action to be followed by the reader. Please read the detailed Terms of Use of the web site.

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