CAMBRIDGE, England — A robotic chef is learning how to “taste” food as it cooks it — just like humans do to see if their meal has enough seasoning. The new machine can even change the taste of food depending on individual tastes!

Researchers at Cambridge University say this could one day lead to automated robots in food preparation that know exactly what tastes good to most customers. Aiming to nail down the science of the art of cookery has already led to the robot chef being able to make an omelet based on a human taster’s feedback.

The team found by creating a “taste as you go” approach improved the robot’s ability to quickly and accurately assess the saltiness of a dish. To imitate the human process of chewing and tasting in their robot chef, the researchers attached a conductance probe, which acts as a salinity sensor, to a robot arm.

They prepared scrambled eggs and tomatoes, varying the number of tomatoes and the amount of salt in each dish. Using the probe, the robot “tasted” the dishes in a grid-like fashion, returning a reading in just a few seconds.

To imitate the change in texture caused by chewing, the team then put the egg mixture in a blender and had the robot test the dish again. The different readings at different points of “chewing” produced taste maps of each dish.

Expanding the robot’s menu

The researchers are now hoping to improve the robot chef so it can taste different types of food and improve sensing capabilities so it can taste sweet or oily food as well.

“Most home cooks will be familiar with the concept of tasting as you go – checking a dish throughout the cooking process to check whether the balance of flavors is right,” says Grzegorz Sochacki, a PhD student in the Department of Engineering, in a university release.

“If robots are to be used for certain aspects of food preparation, it’s important that they are able to ‘taste’ what they’re cooking.”

“When we taste, the process of chewing also provides continuous feedback to our brains,” adds co-author Dr. Arsen Abdulali, also from the Department of Engineering. “Current methods of electronic testing only take a single snapshot from a homogenized sample, so we wanted to replicate a more realistic process of chewing and tasting in a robotic system, which should result in a tastier end product.”

“When a robot is learning how to cook, like any other cook, it needs indications of how well it did,” Abdulali continues. “We want the robots to understand the concept of taste, which will make them better cooks. In our experiment, the robot can ‘see’ the difference in the food as it’s chewed, which improves its ability to taste.”

“We believe that the development of robotic chefs will play a major role in busy households and assisted living homes in the future. This result is a leap forward in robotic cooking, and by using machine and deep learning algorithms, mastication will help robot chefs adjust taste for different dishes and users,” concludes Dr. Muhammad Chughtai, senior scientist at Beko plc.

The research appears in the journal Frontiers in Robotics and AI.