Will we soon be able to outsource every laborious task to machines?

A company based in London has created a robot capable of cooking meals and plans to market it by 2017.

After a long day, cooking can seem an unenjoyable chore. But the days of people having to sweat over their dinner may be numbered, after the unveiling of a prototype robotic kitchen at the Hannover Messe trade fair in Germany.

The Robochef, created by London firm Moley Robotics, learns the process for particular dishes by imitating the movements of a human chef. The human cooks while wearing gloves studded with sensors and being filmed by a 3D camera. Then a pair of robotic hands recreate those movements precisely to make the same meal. It’s an impressive feat of engineering, particularly as the human hand is the most agile and one of the most complicated parts of our bodies.

The company are planning to launch a consumer version of the kitchen in 2017, which will cost around £10,000 and be programmed to cook up to 2,000 recipes. It will look similar to an ordinary kitchen, with hobs, a sink, an oven, a dishwasher and a fridge. It opens up a lot of possibilities — the designers even had to slow it down, out of fear that its speed would intimidate humans.

Designing a robot to perform a repeatable task is nothing new. The Greek mathematician Archytas is considered by some to have created the first robot — a mechanical wooden dove capable of flapping its wings and flying up to 200m high, possibly with the help of a pulley — in 350BC. The world’s first industrial robot, called Unimate, was put to work in 1961 by General Motors in New Jersey, performing simple welding and die-casting tasks which were unpleasant for people to do.

The UK government has said it sees great potential in Robotics and Autonomous Systems (RAS), and futurologists predict that RAS may radically change our homes. Robotic vacuum cleaners, wardrobes which clean clothes without using water, beds which change temperature to help people sleep: emerging products such as these could allow us unprecedented levels of domestic comfort.

[divider]Ready, Steady, Cook[/divider] Some people eagerly await the day when robots perform mundane tasks in our homes. Imagine never having to wash up, clean or cook again, they say. We will have far more choice over our lives and spend more time doing things we enjoy with people we value. Life’s too short for chores.

But others think robots will always be limited. The human care and effort which have gone into a meal is part of what makes it taste good, they say, and being able to taste and smell one’s food is an important part of the process of preparing it. Predictable, automatically-prepared meals would be far less pleasurable to eat. We have always had control of providing food and shelter for ourselves and our families — and we won’t be giving it up easily.

It looks useful, but how many people will spend £10,000 on a kitchen? Probably not many at first, but the cost may quickly fall. Once a few have been produced, making more of them will be easier and companies may find ways to make them cheaper and more efficient.

What sort of food will it cook? The Robochef is being promoted by Tim Anderson, who won BBC Masterchef in 2011, so don’t expect fish fingers and chips.

He’s already shown it how to make stir fry, sushi, steak, pasta and crab bisque.

So could this be part of a wider trend in our homes? Machines have already rapidly made our domestic lives much easier — only a couple of generations ago, there were no vacuum cleaners or washing machines.

This progress will probably continue for the foreseeable future.

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