Robochef

In books like The Race Against the Machine and The Second Machine Age (both by Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee), The Glass Cage (Nicholas Carr) and The Lights in the Tunnel (Martin Ford), the themes of an increasingly automated world are explored. One of the main themes is how tasks previously thought unlikely to succumb to automation — such as driving a car — are well on their way to partial of not full automation. Whereas previous rounds of technological advance tended to replace lower value-added tasks, a feature of this new age of automation is how higher value-added jobs are also in the sights of the engineers. For example, The Economist’s current (May 9th 2015) special report on financial technology describes the rise of automated wealth managers.

As problems go, the suspicion that you are being overcharged by a private wealth manager is one of the better ones to have in life. But even millionaires who are regularly invited out to lunch by their banker tire of the 1-3% annual fee they have to cough up for his investment advice. Many mere submillionaires may well be paying similar rates for an asset-management professional to administer their pension pot, often without being aware of it. Could a computer not do an equally good job dishing out standardised guidance on how much they should invest respectively in shares, bonds and other assets?

A raft of “automated wealth managers” is now available, on the premise that algorithms can offer sound financial advice for a small fraction of the price of a real-life adviser (see table). With names that suggest a mix of blue-blooded discretion and startup ebullience—Wealthfront, Betterment, Personal Capital, FutureAdvisor—they are growing at a rapid clip. Most are grudgingly starting to accept the tag of “robo-adviser”.

Charles Schwab, now a wealth-management giant with $2.5 trillion under management, in March rolled out its own automated wealth service, targeting people with as little as $5,000 in savings. It charges no fees upfront but guides clients towards some of its own investment products—a breach of the unwritten robo-advisory code.

Schwab’s arrival was discreetly celebrated as a validation of the automated advisory model. A truce of sorts seems to be in the offing. Betterment now offers a “white-label” version of its platform, so that human wealth advisers can pass off the computers’ diligence as their own.

Similarly, it also describes (April 18th) a prototype for a robotic chef developed by Mark Oleynik, whose aim is to create a robot chef that can use conventional applications and utensils with the ultimate goal of making them usable in a conventional household. The core of the system is a pair of human-sized robotic hands made by a British firm, Shadow Robot, that are suspended from the ceiling above the cooking area. Using video and motion sensors, the team records the motions of a human chef (such as U.K. MasterChef winner, Tim Anderson) so that the RoboChef can replicate the procedure and, one hopes, the tastiness of the dish.

Mr Anderson thought the robot would mess things up, but he has been impressed by its ability to capture the subtleties involved in preparing the dish. “Small things matter in cooking,” he says, “and the robot is very consistent.”robochef

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In development is a model of RoboChef that includes integrated fridge storage and dishwasher (below).

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Tim Anderson thought the robot might miss the nuances of making a dish as subtle as a crab bisque, but apparently the robochef captured the subtleties of his every movement including the whisking motions.

Dr. Oleynik plans to assemble a library of thousands of recipes and can even include versions that reproduce the approach of celebrity chefs. Perhaps, with the addition of a speech synthesizer and a suitable vocabulary, kitchen HAL might even groan and swear like Gordon Ramsay.

 



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