(This is the first of two posts on “Mombot.” It may not be quite the gender apocalypse that is the catwalk fembot, but the possibility of a kitchen robot raises some interesting issues about who is, and who should, be doing the cooking in our sustainability obsessed food culture. The next post will be up in a few days.)
About a year ago, I wrote a blog post for Bitch Magazine on the debut of a catwalk “fembot,” which tied into the series finale of Battlestar Galactica, a sci-fi show which pits humans against humanlike robots. What struck me about how we envision a robot-powered future is how closely it mimics our own gender expectations—especially when it comes to women and service-oriented and domestic tasks.
“If competing with real models and airbrushed celebrity magazine covers isn’t enough, we now have the spectre of a woman conjured into reality on the assembly line, made to spec, and with the promise of an endless supply of replicas to look forward to… So far, we seem to be putting our best efforts in this field towards creating an idealized Eve, complete with (almost) all the requisite feminine skills.”
It seems the fembot has some competition and this time there’s nary a fuck-me boot in sight. The New York Times recently ran a story on kitchen robots, a round-up on the state of the kitchen-bot, circa 2010. This new generation of culinary bots’ repertoire includes pancakes, burgers, ramen noodles, elaborate Chinese dinners and even bartending (sorry, no advice for your life woes). If “Meet George Jetson…” is cuing up in your head right now, you’re on the right track.
With a headline that reads “Just Like Mombot Used to Make,” I expected more fodder along the lines of my previous article. But I was surprised to find that these robots are, in fact, more machine than human. A ramen-making robot, which works in a real Tokyo noodle shop, is effectively just a mechanical arm with voice capabilities. Likewise a robot which cooks Japanese octopus balls. Aside from the voice capabilities, I’m not sure how these differ from, say, the mini-donut machine at the CNE. In fact, they’re more enhanced machine than artificial intelligence-leaning humanoid bots. Even if, like the “chief cook robot,” a soothing male voice asks “Were you happy with this demonstration?” after it successfully beats eggs for an omelette.
Instead of feminine features designed to make the robots more familiar and easy to relate to, food is the point of connection. To whit, the Snackbot:
“Designed to gather information on how robots interact with people (and how to improve homo-robo relations), the Snackbot has been carefully considered for maximum approachability in every detail, from its height to its color. The snack, not surprisingly, is the central component of that approachability. ‘We figured, what better way to get people to interact with a robot than have something that offers them food?’ Dr. Rybski said. The Snackbot is but one soldier in a veritable army of new robots designed to serve and cook food and, in the process, act as good-will ambassadors, and salesmen, for a more automated future.”
That’s not to say gender dynamics don’t exist. They’re just more subtle. Take a look at the Snackbot demo video below (also available on the NYT site and at Snackbot.org), which switches from a male voice when explaining its functions, to a female voice when performing its serving duties. It’s actually a little disconcerting when the non-gendered machine switches from a male voice, which seemed more “natural” to a female voice, which didn’t seem to jive with its appearance. Hmmm. Still, this is no catwalkin’ fembot.
The only example which came close to the catwalk fembot were the sushi and patisserie robots featured at FOOMA Japan 2009, an international food machinery and tech show. The bots feature a realistic, silicone hand (yes, those are manicured nails) attached to a mechanical arm. What’s fascinating here is the blending of Japanese culinary precision with machinery. It may seem counter-intuitive at first glance, but with those hands and muscle-control, it all comes together in one creepy futuristic happily-ever-after.
On the whole, surprisingly little gender signalling, especially considering the topic is food. We’ll see where this one goes, but thus far, the intelligence seems to have been put back into the artificial intelligence.
For another variant on the “robocalypse,” check out the video on the Fast Company site—Kompai, designed by the French company Robosoft. The voice is slightly more gender-neutral, but the entire interaction has an echo of the increasingly ubiquitous phone voice systems used by companies like Rogers. You know the kind—with their soft, faux calm voice and maddening “Ok, is this what you want?,” that make even the most patient person want to throw something. Yup, those.