22 Sept

Meet Robot Taste Testers: Will AI Inspire a Flavour Revolution?

The tongue is one of the strangest organs in the human body.

Each one is around three inches long and home to an average of 3,500 taste buds. Every morsel of food you have ever savoured, reviled, chewed and swallowed has been processed by this sensory network. 

AI has mastered many of the other human senses. Robots can hear, see, smell and touch, but until very recently, taste was a human speciality.

No longer.

In the future, AI tasters will synthesise whole new flavours, and might even help to battle climate change. For now, they are set to revolutionise food production.

The perfect cup, every time

The modern food and drink industry promises consistency.

When we buy our favourite brand of coffee, chocolate, or sliced bread we expect the pack to taste the same every time we buy it. We expect this in spite of the fact that crops do change. Weather and growing conditions vary, crops fail and new suppliers come onto the market. 

To achieve consistency food and drink manufacturers produce blends of different crop varieties. This way the blend is different every year, but the taste is the same. 

At least, that’s the idea. 

It has historically been the job of taste testers to manage this process and produce consistent blends. The best taster testers perform a crucial function. Cadbury’s insures the taste buds of its top tasters for £1 million and bans them from eating chillies that might damage their discerning palette.

And it’s not just chocolate that gets the taste treatment. 

Almost every food you eat has gone through a similar process. Even dog food brands employ human taste testers.

IBM is developing Hypertaste, a robotic tongue to taste test for the presence of hazardous chemicals in liquids, Image from IBM Research

Hypertaste is attached to a glass in which green and blue compounds are being dissolved.

Where does the AI come in? 

AI are integrated into almost every aspect of the modern economy. A machine that can identify and process taste like we can isn’t here yet – but it soon will be. 

Silicon valley based startup Aromyx is developing a program that “digitize smell and taste”. In effect, the company is trying to turn the way we experience the world into numbers that a computer might interpret.

The start-up recently closed on a $3 million investment round. Its technology is already used by customers to identify rotten lemons in a drink processing plant.

Robots can also taste things that humans can’t.

IBM is currently working on hypertaste, a robotic sensor that will be able to “taste” chemical compounds dissolved in liquid. The company is hoping that the technology will allow users to gather sensory data from unexpected places. For example, one of its projected use cases will be “tasting” river water to check for contaminants. 

A brave new world

Netflix uses algorithms to work out what shows you want to watch and personalises the thumbnails too. 

If companies like Aromyx are successful they will not only change the way we handle quality control, they might also change the ways in which new products are created.

AI tasters could enhance flavours and might even be able to create totally new ones. 

There are possible implications for the climate too. In an increasingly climate conscious world, many of us are trying to eat less meat. A robot that really understood flavour might be able to create near-perfect meat substitutes.

Of course, there is more to flavour that chemistry.

Food stirs emotions, brings back memories and reinforces social bonds. Will the robots ever be able to bring that human touch?

Header Image: IBM is developing Hypertaste, a robotic tongue to taste test for the presence of hazardous chemicals in liquids, Image from IBM Research 

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