Is this the future of food?

Robot arms, smart fridges and holographic shop assistants – don’t get left behind. Here’s our guide to the technology that’s shaping our foodie lives…

Moley machine in kitchen arranging food

In the last five years, technology has transformed the way we cook. ‘People no longer just want to read recipes in the kitchen, ’ says Hannah Williams, bbcgoodfood's head of digital content. ‘They want to get inspiration on the commute, share ideas with mates on social media or buy ingredients lying in bed.’ The next steps in food tech will be equally profound. A combination of the ‘internet of things’ (new, web-connected household appliances) and artificial intelligence (machines that learn from us), means that everywhere food is about to take a massive leap into the future. But what will the rise of intelligent ovens, robot chefs, voice-activated shopping and lab-grown steaks, mean for you? How will it affect you in the kitchen, or at the supermarket, in what you choose to eat? 
 

Voice assistants

Mobile phone held in hand with picture of fridge interior

Be it Amazon's Alexa walking you through recipes, your oven suggesting what you should cook or baking in real-time with friends online, the way we discover recipes is changing.

First you asked mum, then you bought cookbooks, but now online hubs such as bbcgoodfood.com enable you to browse thousands of recipes in seconds using key filters (ingredient, diet, season etc). ‘Whether it’s offline in-app access to favourite recipes or quick inspiration videos on Facebook, we make sure people can get what they want conveniently,’ says Hannah Williams. Voice-control is thought to be the next big thing and that thirst for convenience explains why; just imagine your hands covered in eggs and flour as you wonder about the next step in a recipe. Experian found 51% of US users keep their Amazon or Google voice-assistant in the kitchen and you can now ‘ask Alexa’ to talk you through 60,000 recipes. Bosch is developing the voice-activated kitchen helper, Mykie. ‘It can project recipes onto walls and connect you with other users, perhaps in another country. Share a recipe and it’ll guide you both,’ says group innovations manager, James Kington.

Most smart appliances have built-in cookbooks, accessible via a screen or app. Next, fitted cameras will constantly monitor cupboard and fridge contents and – prompted by compatible ingredients or use-by dates (you can already do this manually with the Eat By app – suggest suitable recipes. ‘Even if the label’s the wrong way round, you can now train systems to identify items by packaging,’ says Craig Wills, managing director at product design studio Hi Mum! Said Dad.

That artificial intelligence, the ability of machines to recognise ingredients and learn how they work together, is potentially explosive. At Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the Pic2Recipe team fed one million recipes and food images into a device that can already identify individual ingredients/dishes and provide recipes for them with around 20% accuracy.

Soon you will be able to photograph a restaurant dish and instantly pull down recipes for it. Will that change what we eat? ‘It’s thrilling,’ cautions Williams, ‘but we’re creatures of habit. Every Sunday, the most viewed recipe on bbgoodfood.com is Yorkshire pudding.’
 

Smart kitchens

Robot stirring food in a bowl on kitchen surface

Clever ovens, camera-enabled fridges, coffee machines that remember you and food processors that want to chat. The kitchen is taking on a life of its own.

Traditionally, appliances were lifeless. Ovens just sat there. Fridges were cold and stand-offish. But the kitchens of tomorrow (of today, in fact, if you can afford a £2,000 fridge), will be integrated hubs in which web-connected smart appliances work with you. On board with this vision is Jordan Halifax, an electricals expert at John Lewis, ‘whether it’s a coffee machine remembering your preferred settings or a smart oven managing your baking’.

Using the Home Connect app, owners of top-end Bosch products can – remotely – look at the ingredients in their camera-enabled fridges, turn their ovens on, adjust their temperature and heat modes or import complex pre-sets for, say, eight-hour pork belly. Humidity sensors and meat-probes assess, in real-time, precisely how the food is cooking.

In the US, the June Oven’s internal camera (imagine watching your roast chicken bronze in close-up HD – just $1,495!), can identify foods, weigh them and choose a correct cooking setting. As image recognition improves, says Craig Wills, ‘Cameras will be able to tell if something’s perfectly cooked based on its colour or how it’s risen.’

If you think that sucks all the fun out of baking, then you will hate Moley’s robot chef. Due to launch in 2018 (price tbc but Moley is reportedly aiming for under £20,000 long-term), this is not quite a kitchen C-3PO. It will not wash-up and take the bins out. Instead, the Moley robot is made up of two fixed, over-stove robotic arms that, when given ingredients, will cook dishes to pre-programmed recipes. It is modelled on the movements of 2011 MasterChef winner Tim Anderson.

‘In San Francisco, there’s a robot that can make 400 burgers an hour and, as they become affordable, they’ll creep into our kitchens,’ says Noel Sharkey, emeritus professor of artificial intelligence at the University of Sheffield (and star of BBC’s Robot Wars). However, he adds, it will be ‘a very long time’ before we see autonomous robots winning Michelin stars. Abstract creativity stumps robots. Humans may have a future after all.
 

Sci-fi shopping

Mothercare shopping buggy infront of door

That British institution, the weekly 'big shop', is wobbling as we enter a world of online voice-ordering, instant robot delivery and mobile shops with holographic staff.

Picture this: 6pm, Wednesday. On the train after work, you open your kitchen app. You tap the fridge icon and a list of its contents appears. In a ‘suggested recipe’ box you can see you have 85% of the ingredients for lasagne, but the app, also connected to your smart cupboards, knows you're out of pasta sheets. It asks if you want to buy them from your usual online supermarket? You add a bottle of wine to the order, tap ‘deliver now’ and, immediately, your supermarket dispatches the items by drone. An hour later, you arrive home and your shopping is waiting in a secure doorstep delivery box.

Is this the future? Broadly, yes. Though drones may not take-off. The logistics are complex. But several supermarkets already offer one-hour delivery within London, where – using Starship Technologies’ self-driving, app-accessed robot delivery vehicle – Just Eat has already completed over 1,000 unmanned takeaway deliveries. Likewise, Tesco is trialling robot-delivery and Ocado, driverless vans. ‘It’ll be here faster than we think,’ says Craig Wills. Retailers are competing furiously to offer us a hassle-free shopping experience. Hence Amazon’s Dash buttons: branded, WiFi-connected buttons through which you can reorder products with one touch. They may be gimmicky (‘How many buttons do you want cluttering your home?’ asks Emma Weinbren from retail magazine The Grocer), but other innovations, such as intelligent voice-ordering – the ability to compile a list for delivery via Amazon’s Alexa or Google Assistant – will likely be huge. Ocado recently launched a UK voice service with Amazon.

This does not mean shops will disappear. We foodies, for instance, may always prefer to browse for fresh ingredients. But shops will look different. Forget self-service tills. Operators are experimenting with mobile, unmanned stores (Shanghai’s Moby Mart, Seattle’s Amazon Go), where, using cameras, sensors and phone apps, registered users can shop and just walk out, paying automatically. No check-outs. No queues. Just a holographic shop assistant at the door. Change will be both radical and gradual, says Weinbren: ‘Amazon shouldn’t be underestimated but, realistically, I can’t see it surpassing the UK’s big four supermarkets in the next decade. Interestingly, Ocado has said it won’t replace drivers altogether. People value the service they provide.'
 

Future farming

From underground farms and lab-grown meat to lettuce fertilised by fish poo, the future of farming will be unrecognisable.

Investors are ploughing big money into future-farming. Tech evangelists predict a brave new world of driverless tractors and drone-controlled flocks roaming sensor-impregnated fields. Sat in remote control centres, “farmers” will mainly process data about soil quality and crop yields in an apparent entrenchment of the intensive farming that produces so much poor food and ecological damage. But could science provide alternative strategies? In San Francisco, start-ups such as Finless Foods and Memphis Meats are racing to produce the first affordable, delicious and sustainable cultured-meat – made by reproducing protein cells under lab conditions. Detractors label it ‘Frankenmeat’, but cultured-meat manufacturers predict they will be retailing by the early 2020s. Advanced plant-based foods are also breaking into US restaurants such as Impossible Foods’ much-hyped veggie burger. This $250m project utilises a plant protein also common in meat, called heme, to achieve its reputed meatiness.

Dr Vincent Walsh, an expert at Liverpool John Moores University, predicts that cities will embrace soil and pesticide-free, LED-lit urban farming. Usually water-based hydroponic systems, urban farms come in several forms that can work anywhere from old warehouses to tower blocks, often producing exotic, hitherto imported ingredients. Walsh has grown shiitake mushrooms by Salford’s River Irwell and experimented with fish-poo-powered aquaponics: ‘The fish crap produces nitrates and nitrites; the plants clean the water by taking up those nutrients, and then its fed back in.’

A winner at this year’s BBC Food & Farming awards, Growing Underground cultivates micro-herbs in tunnels beneath Clapham and has salads in London M&S stores. ‘We can control these hyper-local environments to produce a better crop at a much higher yield in a much smaller space,’ says Walsh.
 

21st-century health

Mobile phone held in hand with picture of fridge interior

Fitness gadgets and food-tracking apps are helping some but health tech is, arguably, not quite up to speed.

Not so long ago, fitness wearables (Fitbit-style activity monitors) and food-tracking apps were seen as transformative. We would know how many calories we had eaten each day, how many we had burned, act accordingly and the weight would drop off. Increasingly, that is seen as wildly optimistic. For health-freaks all that data (heart-rates, nutritional stats, steps this, calories that) is compelling. But for couch-potatoes, unless paired with structured, motivational fitness programmes, it can be bewildering, if not depressing: a constant reminder of your failings.

The quality of food-tracking apps varies widely, too. Fooducate proactively analyses food, assessing the quality of calories and suggesting healthier alternatives, but that's rare. MyFitnessPal runs on a database that contains over six million foods. Few trackers are that comprehensive, which can be frustrating if you cannot find the nutritional information you need for a specific branded product or restaurant.

Moreover, says Dr Susan Roberts, director of the Energy Metabolism Laboratory at Boston’s Tufts University, all that searching databases, scanning barcodes or typing foods into your tracker app is ‘Boring. Many people sign up, but many don’t use them.’ A reliable visual app that could ‘see’ your food would simplify the process, but, for now, Roberts is helping develop a voice-activated tracker that people talk to: ‘The prompts and advice I can provide in a heartbeat, when we get good recording programs.’
 

Top 10 food tech innovationsWires and headset, pink egg and food mixer

See our list of mind-melting foodie innovations which are either already here or on the horizon...
 

1. Instant everything

Affordable delivery will transform how we eat, says Craig Wills: ‘With delivery services such as Quiqup, you could get a picnic delivered in Hyde Park.’
 

2. Pan-ic over

Smart-pans such as Pantelligent (US-only, $129) whose temperature sensors link to an app on your phone, could mean an end to dry salmon.
 

3. The icing on the cake

Augmented reality phone apps allow you to insert imagery into real life. For instance, In The Kitchen, an app from Food Network, you can test out decorations on just-baked cupcakes.
 

4. Bee bots

You want your apple tree to pollinate? Then we need more bees; possibly self-piloting robot-bees. Critics say it’s bonkers, but evangelists are buzzing about these prototype micro-drones.
 

5. Bakery hack

Bosch’s intelligent Optimum food processor (from £499.99) automatically knows when to stop beating egg whites or mixing dough.
 

6. The printed curd

Precision 3D food printers such as the Foodini ($4,000, currently for professionals only at Natural Machines) are appearing in high-end kitchens. Will we get the next generation to eat their greens by creating crazy 3D shapes from peas? Some experts think so.
 

7. Hangover cure

Professor David Nutt’s ‘alcosynth’ is a liquid compound that mimics alcohol’s pleasant effects without any unhealthy side-effects. By 2050, he predicts, alcohol will be off the menu.
 

8. Fuss-free food-tracker

In development, AutoDietary is a mic-enabled necklace that, by recording sounds as we chew, knows what we’re eating and can calculate its calories.
 

9. Purple reign

Boffins plan to extract the purple antioxidants, anthocyanins, from Peruvian corn, to use as an all-purpose, health-boosting natural colouring. Violet eggs, anyone?
 

10. Wheely useful

Walmart has patented a robotic shopping trolley that will follow customers. Where did we put that £1 coin?
 

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