The Limits, and Possibilities, of a Robot Chef

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A few weeks before Christmas, I flew across the Atlantic into our culinary future, where a robot would cook me a bowl of fancy soup.

Like most of us, I’ve eaten food prepared by a robot before. On my flight from New York to London, for example, the meal I was served — a microwaved chicken sponge in salt-lick tomato sauce, accompanied by uniformly cylindrical green and yellow wax beans — was certainly made by machines. Same goes for the Diet Coke I drank, and the prepackaged granola bar I ate instead of the chicken.

But this robot, whose name is Moley, was promising something more than fast, cheap industrial food: a high-quality meal made from scratch and cooked at home — enticing, especially if, like me, you’ve always found cooking akin to a riddle you can’t solve. (My home-cooked seafood specialty is canned sardines on toast with cream cheese. It’s better than it sounds.)

Moley is the invention of a U.K.-based company called Moley Robotics. Sadly, he’s not a robot whirling about the pantry so much as a “robotic kitchen” — two sleek, humanoid arms that hang above an otherwise conventional stovetop, a sort of personal chef for the inept or harried home cook, capable of preparing all but the most complicated recipes. In theory, anyway. Right now, the robot makes bisque, and only bisque. Expensive, creamy crab bisque. A dish selected because it’s relatively difficult for home cooks, impressive and flavorful when shared by the spoonful at demos, and comfortably within the range of the robot’s ability. Moley Robotics hopes to bring its product to the consumer market by 2018. By then, it will make other dishes, presumably.

This is how Moley works: A chef cooks a recipe while being filmed with motion-capture cameras. That chef’s movements are then uploaded to Moley’s computer, which commands the robot to mimic them. The recipes are made available for download; the ingredients available for delivery; the tireless, never-complaining robot available to retrace the human chef’s steps at its hungry owner’s whim. Instead of sardines and cream cheese, crab bisque.

Watch Moley in action.

A little before 11 on my first morning in London, I arrived at Moley’s home, a glass-fronted “incubator,” one of many in a converted airplane factory on a leafy street in Hammersmith. Amid the grinding squawk of blue jays and children playing outside at a nearby school, I peered through the incubator’s glass wall and saw, for the first time, Moley. Its pair of bulky black-and-white arms and hands were suspended over a two-burner electric oven range, saucepan, countertop, and sink, all of which, along with a small convection oven, are housed in a ten-foot-long cylinder open in the middle and set on its side at the back of a gray room. On the rear wall of the cylinder, within Moley’s reach, hung a set of spoons, spatulas, and an immersion blender. The robot would definitely not fit through the front door of my apartment.

I was greeted by Moley Robotics’ head of engineering, David Walsh, and Janine — just Janine — who, wearing a gray cardigan and plastic gloves, was at a prep station opposite Moley, measuring out ingredients on an electronic scale and placing them in ramekins and cups and on plates. “Are you Moley’s sous-chef?” I asked.

“That’s right,” she said cheerily. “He needs a spot of help.”

“Remember,” said Walsh, “this is a prototype. We’ve determined that where Moley brings the most value is in the cooking. People don’t mind doing prep work.” (This is not a universal assessment. Matt Salzberg, co-founder of the food-kit delivery service Blue Apron, says that his company has found that “people love cooking. We design our recipes so that customers will enjoy the process, and the thing they’re more focused on is cutting down the prep time.”)

Step 1: Vermouth for depth. Photo: Ralph Whitehead/Ralph Whitehead

Janine placed all the parceled-out ingredients into corresponding spaces carved into the countertop. At this point in its development, Moley can only follow the motion-captured movements it’s been taught. That means the ingredients and implements need to be in exactly the same place every time Moley cooks in order for it to know where to find them.

“So if I’m at home,” I asked Walsh, “and Moley is cooking bisque and my daughter moves an ingredient, does it go haywire?”

Walsh raised an eyebrow. “Eventually it’ll have sensors that allow it to adapt to changes in its environment,” he said. “But for now, what it does with a chef’s recipe is like the playback of a song.” The human chef behind the bisque, former U.K. Top Chef winner Tim Anderson, developed the recipe Moley reenacts. What I’m seeing — what Moley is capable of — is tantamount to a prerecorded performance. A lack of interpretive intelligence, a form of AI orders of magnitude more advanced than Moley’s, is also why it needs a Janine. Ingredients are variable; Moley has no sense of touch, taste, or smell and thus can’t tell the difference between a ripe or rotten tomato.

“If it could sous-chef,” Janine said, “I’d be out of a job.”

“Someday, it could do prep work,” Walsh suggested, clicking a button on the remote control he was holding, springing Moley to life. Accompanied by a mechanical whoosh, Moley’s right arm glided down and delicately extended its index finger to the heat-control dial on the range and flipped it on, then gently off. Moley’s movement was surprisingly fluid — it has 24 different motors in each hand — and the sound it made recalls a purring car engine. When Moley’s hand moved away from the oven and toward me back to its resting position, I instinctively stepped away. Its sound and size exude strength. When I stepped near Moley and touched its smooth, cool forearm, I had the same anxious feeling I get around a big dog: If this thing gets spooked, I’m in trouble.

Janine carefully placed the ingredients in the predetermined places on the counter and backed away so Moley could start to cook. A knock on the incubator door: an employee from the building asking about a delivery. Walsh and Janine went to deal with her. I looked at the cream, tomatoes, chicken stock, shallots, and butter. All just so, waiting for Moley to play its song. Before my visit with Moley, I had asked Siddhartha Srinivasa, a Carnegie Mellon robotics professor who works on robot-human interaction, how to tell if Moley was a good robot. And in the incubator, as Walsh and Janine were distracted, Srinivasa’s answer drifted into my mind. “One way to know if a robot is well built,” he said, “is to see how much you can perturb that robot’s environment and have it be able to continue to perform its functions.”

I looked at Walsh and Janine. Their backs were facing me. I looked at Moley, waiting for Walsh to hit go. I looked again at Walsh and Janine. I looked at Moley. Poor Moley.

I moved the cup of cream over half an inch.

After another minute, Walsh returned to the cooking area and put the cream in its proper place. So much for perturbation.

Step 2: Moley adds stock to the bisque. Photo: Ralph Whitehead/Ralph Whitehead

Walsh again clicked his control and Moley whirred back into action. It picked up the ramekin of shallots and neatly dropped them in the saucepan. It smoothly lifted a spatula carrying two pats of butter and tilted it over the saucepan. The butter splashed into the pan. Walsh frowned. Moley had messed up. It had dropped the butter prematurely. But because Moley didn’t know it had made a mistake, it continued running through its motions without adjusting, using a second spatula to scrape downward on the area where the butter had been. Walsh turned to Janine. “You need to press the butter onto the spatula so it sticks.” The error was soon lost in the aroma of sautéing shallots.

After Moley used a spatula to stir, it wiped off excess liquid against the inner lip of the saucepan. It swiftly added garlic, cherry tomatoes, and stock. It stirred, then added vermouth. Though its gestures are modeled on Chef Anderson’s, they registered as more powerful and decisive than a human’s. Moley doesn’t reach, it swoops.

When Moley wasn’t busy with a specific task, it made subtle and mesmerizing movements — a light turn of the wrist, a tiny flex of the fingers, like it was eagerly awaiting its next command. “Those are the same movements Tim made when he was at rest during the motion-capture filming,” said Walsh. “We chose to include them for the sake of anthropomorphism.” The result is that when Moley does nothing is when Moley is most humanlike.

Moley reached over to the ingredients and dropped in dark crabmeat and, without a hitch, the cream. Then Moley wrapped the fingers of its right hand around an immersion blender and, with an almost jaunty motion, used its left hand to flick the on switch. When Moley is done with an implement, it drops it in the sink. It can’t yet clean up after itself. Walsh says they hope to develop that capability. Eventually.

Moley garnished the bisque: a sprinkle of tarragon, a drizzle of truffle oil, and a hunk of white crabmeat — a surprising amount of which remained in the ramekin. “There shouldn’t have been any left over,” Walsh said. “Any error the robot makes is the result of a prior human error.” Janine had used too much crab.

Moley ladled the bisque into a bowl and said “Bon appétit.” The entire process took about 30 minutes. The bisque smelled of crabmeat, cream, and pepper. Janine cleaned. Walsh pressed a button. Moley went dead. I sat to eat.

Step 3: Next, the crab. Photo: Ralph Whitehead/Ralph Whitehead

I’d eaten bisque only twice before. The first was lobster, bought from Whole Foods in advance of my visit with Moley. The store’s luridly pink, punishingly rich bisque called to mind a postcoital squid excretion. And so, after landing in London, I decided that to properly judge Moley’s one dish, I needed to be able to compare it to first-class bisque.

An embittered gourmand I used to know had told me about a restaurant in the city called Wiltons. Located in the formerly aristocratic, now merely very expensive, neighborhood of St. James’s, it has been in business serving classic English (and, bah, some French) cuisine for 274 years. I checked to ensure that it served bisque — it did — and made a dinner reservation.

Upon arrival at Wiltons, I was promptly led through the hushed restaurant’s dark-wood-and-frosted-glass interior to an isolated table in a corner, as if being punished with a time-out for neglecting to wear a suit, unlike all the other male diners. Ah, well. I ordered the bisque as a starter, to be followed by lamb cutlets, Brussels-sprouts tops, and the wine list’s second-cheapest glass of red. Before leaving for London, I’d asked Le Bernardin’s chef Eric Ripert for advice on how the soup should taste. Pay attention, he said, to “the harmony between the subtle flavors of the crustacean and the power of the cognac, the hint of sweet and anise from the tarragon, the tiny bit of heat from the black pepper, and, of course, a silky texture.”

I could taste it all. And in contrast to Whole Foods’ neon sputum, Wiltons’ bisque was an earthy ocher. Each spoonful contained, in discernibly ideal proportions, everything Ripert cited: the anise, the pepper, the lobster, the booze. In the center of the soup was a disk of lobster meat. I bit. My lower spine shivered with pleasure. I wrote in my notepad: “That’s some tasty-ass bisque.”

A hawkeyed waiter caught me writing. “How does it compare?” He sounded French, maybe Walloon. I explained that I didn’t know how Wiltons’ godly ambrosia compared because I wouldn’t taste Moley’s bisque till the morrow. The waiter’s brown eyes bloomed. “A cooking robot!” he gasped. “This is like something from the movies!” He walked away, shaking his head in amazement. His wonder and my pleasure, there, in that restaurant, called to mind something food writer Ruth Reichl mentioned when I chatted with her about Moley. “Cooking is one of the basic ways we connect with people,” she said, after laughing for a while about the notion of a robot chef that makes only crab bisque. “For us to give that up would be so sad.”

I declined dessert and asked for the check. It appeared with two perfect, golden, bite-size mincemeat pies. Ambling toward the Underground, I heard choristers singing through the stained-glass windows of St. James’s Piccadilly. I went in and took a spot in the rear of the nave, behind the pews full of churchgoers, as all of us listened to carols sung in heavenly harmony. The song ended and the reverend sermonized in honeyed tones about shepherds going unto Bethlehem, to see this thing that is come to pass, and instead of baby Jesus, I thought of Moley, the bisque-making robot.

Step 4: Moley can use sharp tools without fear. Photo: Ralph Whitehead/Ralph Whitehead

Moley’s bisque, as it turned out, was very good. Not in the league of Wiltons’; leagues beyond Whole Foods’, which has grown pestilential in my memory. I did notice flaws: I bit a tiny piece of shell, and some of the crabmeat was cold, but the overall feeling was delightfully uncanny, as if I’d heard Siri sing “Daisy Bell.” I’d decided I’d be willing to try spaghetti Bolognese à la Moley — next on the docket for the robot to learn.

As I continued slurping, Moley Robotics founder Mark Oleynik ambled through the incubator door. “Was it a good breakfast?” he asked. Oleynik is 45, with a Beatles haircut and blue eyes. He grew up in St. Petersburg, in a family of scientists and engineers, and spoke — tersely but politely — in heavily accented English. I wish Oleynik had grand futurist statements to offer about how Moley will democratize home cooking or disrupt the food industry, or perhaps a personal legend about how Moley represents, say, an ideological blow against the memories of dreary Soviet bread lines. Alas, “There was no eureka moment,” he said when I asked where he got the idea for Moley. “It was more that I like nice food but I don’t understand how to cook. So I thought to have a robot do it.” When I asked if he has a favorite food, he said, “I like many things. Some chicken. Some soups.” When I asked what he’d most want Moley to make, he said, “Lots of things.” When I moved the conversation away from the robot and asked about his past career — spent lucratively in health-care-software design — he said, “It would be easier for you to look at my LinkedIn.” He did volunteer that “my wife will be first in line for the Moley robotic kitchen.”

Moley Robotics, which Oleynik founded in 2014, is a simple marketplace wager for its founder, one he believes will repay the $5 million he’s spent so far on its development. As he conveys it, Oleynik’s vision is patently simple: a cooking robot. What more do you need to know?

Step 5: A final stir. Photo: Ralph Whitehead/Ralph Whitehead

And the price? “It’s not confirmed,” Oleynik said, seated across from me. “Projected, it’s something like $100k.” Chef Anderson said he envisioned Moley being bought by “luxury-condo developers in Dubai.”

In the constellation of robo-chefs, Moley is a bright star but a distant one. “In the next ten years,” Srinavasa said, “we’ll likely have mass-market cooking robots, but they’ll look more like combination blenders-microwaves-burners rather than a Star Trek–y thing.” The desire to make a robot with humanlike limbs is a significant obstacle to making Moley do all the things a home cook needs to do. As Srinavasa put it, if you’re trying to efficiently automate making a car, you don’t build something that looks like a mechanic. Accordingly, there are start-ups currently developing small boxlike units intended for home use that are capable of prepping and cooking basic meals. These are expected to retail in the $500 range and, from what I’ve seen, are best suited for cooking food that falls under the category of “gunk.” A handful of other companies are also working on robots to cook high-quality restaurant food. “Moley is a moon shot,” said Srinavasa. “Its real value is in providing a vision of what the future could be — like a concept car — rather than as something people will have in their homes sometime soon.”

Tasty as it was, I couldn’t finish Moley’s bisque. (Two bowls of bisque in 24 hours is one bowl too many.) As I sat contemplating how much I could leave in my bowl and not be rude, Janine was humming to herself. Oleynik answered a call in Russian. Walsh inspected Moley, bringing it briefly back to life — an arm shimmied. “People would like it,” Janine said to Walsh as she scrubbed, “if the robot came with a soundtrack and you taught it to dance.”

Step 6: Chef Moley serves dinner. Photo: Ralph Whitehead/Ralph Whitehead

Still, since I share Oleynik’s helplessness with home cooking, I didn’t have a handle on how much physical or mental labor the robot could save. Moley had made bisque look doable. One pot: heating, stirring, blending, garnishing. If its result was easy to make, maybe, just maybe, Moley wasn’t worth a hundred thousand dollars.

So once I was back in New York, I found a bisque recipe in Mark Bittman’s How to Cook Everything, a book belonging to my wife, herself an excellent cook, and decided to give it a shot. (The sole cookbook I own, a leftover from bachelorhood, is Microwave Cooking for One. It does not include a bisque recipe.)

I was immediately lost. Did the water I boiled the lobster in count toward the amount of stock I needed? I was supposed to add a half-stick of butter, but the butter I had at home looked smaller than regular-size sticks. How could I know what “to taste” means if I didn’t trust my own taste? I had no good answers.

I also committed dumb unforced errors. I used star anise, confusing it with Ripert’s description of tarragon’s “anise flavor.” I did buy tarragon — too bad Bittman’s recipe called for thyme. I put the butter in all as one big chunk when the recipe said “in chunks.” I didn’t seed the tomatoes. Every problem I had — measuring, decision-making — is one Moley or any halfway sensible home cook would have avoided.

I combined a lack of attention to kitchen detail with an overweening confidence in my ability to wing it. The amount of lobster stock I’d bought wasn’t sufficient, so I added water, instead of, as my wife suggested, buying more stock. This was the fatal blow. My bisque was irreparably diluted. I kept tasting as I cooked, hoping that at some point the flavor and consistency would miraculously turn from thin to full. It never did. (I should also note that in the time it took me to prepare the bisque and to crater emotionally, my wife made toothsome meals of zucchini and pasta for our 21-month-old to eat over the coming week. And a pan of brownies for us.)

When my lobster slop was ready, I poured some into bowls. The bisque was dotted with shards of antennae. It smelled of failure and pepper.

Once I’d managed to stop spiraling, I thought the bisque wasn’t so bad. Definitely not as delicious as Wiltons’ or Moley’s, but if you subtracted the loose crustacean body parts and frustration that went into it, it was arguably better than Whole Foods’ kraken spunk. I could taste most of the desired flavors, however disproportionate and vague. “It’s good,” my wife said kindly. Then our beautiful baby girl looked up from her bowl, opened her mouth, and said, “More.”

Of course, it turned out that she was picking the lobster meat out and not eating the soup itself, but that one word made the aggravation of cooking, and even the Janine-free task of cleaning up, much less painful. Would it all have been easier if Moley had been around? Oh God, yes. But would I have gotten that same heart flutter if my daughter had said she wanted more of a robot’s bisque? No robot can provide that sense of cozy emotional satisfaction. Not yet.

*This article appears in the January 9, 2017, issue of New York Magazine.