Two white arms hang down from the ceiling, reaching out every once in a while to shake salt or stir a pot. They're the arms of a sous chef, assisting Michelin-starred cooks prepare their meals. But they're not human. They're the arms of Samsung's Bot Chef cooking robot.
I'm in Berlin at IFA, Europe's biggest tech show, and I'm getting a cooking demo at Samsung's monstrous booth. This isn't the first time I've seen a Samsung robot, but it is the first time I've seen a robot cook.
The food, salt cod with beurre blanc, is delicious. To be fair, it's not just the Bot Chef cooking. It's got help from Michelin-starred chefs Michel Troigros and Michel Roux Jr. Bot Chef mostly sprinkles salt and stirs the sauce. It even holds out the spoon for Troigrois to taste the beurre blanc.
"He gets to do all the boring parts, so you can concentrate on the more creative," Samsung's cooking demonstration host said during the demonstration.
Like nearly all major technology companies, Samsung is making a big push in artificial intelligence. The technology, which gives devices some ability to act on their own, is seen as the next big wave of computing, the way we'll interact with our gadgets in the future. Instead of swiping on our phone screens, we'll talk to our devices or to ever-listening microphones around our homes and offices. The ultimate promise for the AI is to predict what you want before you even ask, though most smart assistants aren't that smart yet.
Samsung, which makes everything from TVs to memory chips, has been pushing its Bixby digital assistant in its phones, televisions and home appliances. That includes the Galaxy Home smart speaker, which it unveiled over a year ago but hasn't yet started selling. It plans to spend $22 billion on AI by 2020 and employ 1,000 AI specialists around the globe by that year. It's also the same time frame Samsung's given for making all of its products internet-connected and integrated with Bixby. That's a lot of products -- about half a billion each year. The plan also includes robots.
At CES in January, Samsung showed off four different types of robots for consumers. That included its Bot Air for air purification, Bot Care for health monitoring, Bot Retail for restaurants and shops, and GEMS (Gait Enhancing and Motivating System) to help people with mobility issues. At the time, Samsung said the robots were just research. It didn't have a timeline for when it would launch them.
Samsung first showed the cooking robot at the Kitchen and Bath Industry Show earlier this year. At the time, it said it's "striving to eliminate tedium and inconveniences from our everyday lives, freeing up our time and energy for more enjoyable tasks."
The device works as an extra pair of hands in the kitchen. When a real-life chef is working on part of a dish, Bot Chef can chop, whisk, pour or clean up as needed, based on skills it learns over time or that it downloads from Samsung's skills database. If you want it to stir a pot of soup, you can download a "stirring" skill. Then all a chef needs to do is talk to the robot to issue commands.
"Bot Chef can autonomously understand the location of objects, so the user can tell it where to find the spoon, and which pot to stir," Samsung said.
The robotic manipulator arm has six degrees of freedom, with the same diameter and reach of a human arm. Its sensors and AI algorithms let it work alongside a real person safely, even when they get in each other's way, Samsung said.
While Samsung's best known for its phones and TVs, it also operates one of the world's biggest home appliances businesses. Its products range from washing machines and robot vacuums to its new AirDresser, a free-standing closet that can steam clean your clothes. One of its highest-tech appliances has been its Family Hub refrigerator, which features a 21.5-inch touch screen on the door and an interior camera to show you what food's inside.
The goal, when the $6,000 Family Hub line first launched in 2016, was to make meal prep easier and to help the refrigerator bring a family together. Samsung viewed the kitchen, not the living room, as the central gathering place in a home. To that end, the Family Hub's screen can display calendars of different family members or recipes to cook for dinner. You can even stream music from Pandora. Samsung sold a cheaper version of the Family Hub in 2017 and expanded the lineup to 10 models, and at CES this past January, it introduced a tweaked version of the Family Hub that puts more emphasis on Bixby.
One of the many features of Family Hub was the ability to display recipes and organize a grocery shopping list. We've all done it: Looked at recipes online for hours, scouring blogs for the perfect dishes to make -- and then never actually bought the ingredients or prepared the food. Whisk, a UK startup that Samsung's Silicon Valley NEXT business bought earlier this year, aims to change that.
The company powers the ability to pull up recipes or manage your grocery list on your Family Hub fridge, as well as your phone, laptop and other devices. Whisk today links with over half a billion recipes a month.
"People spend literally hours every single week looking at recipes but eat the same seven on repeat," Whisk CEO Nick Holzherr tells me the day before Samsung's IFA press conference. We're meeting at Samsung NEXT's Berlin offices, located in a WeWork in the center of the city.
If you see a recipe you like online, you can quickly save it for later or add the ingredients to a shopping list. The system learns your preferences; if you're a vegan, it won't recommend meat dishes.
With a new Whisk update, unveiled Thursday at IFA, your recipes, shopping lists and food preferences can now sync across all participating food sites and grocers as long as you're logged in. You can add something to a shopping list on one site and have it appear in your basket on other sites or apps that you use -- or on your Family Hub refrigerator.
Fewer than 5% of the companies working with Whisk -- which include Aldi, Allrecipes, Amazon Fresh, Food Network and Unilever -- have opted out of the new Open Food Platform, Holzherr said.
Using the Family Hub camera, you can see what products are inside your fridge, and Whisk can recommend recipes you can cook with those items. If you're perusing recipes on your computer, you can add them to your profile, and they'll immediately show up on your phone or refrigerator.
"What happens today is, in recipe publishing, you have thousands of different publishers you can look at and they are all separate," Holzherr said. "So what we're doing on that side is you can go to one publisher, click 'add to shopping list,' go to another publisher, click 'add a shopping list' … and it will magically appear across all of these experiences."
Now if only I could get a Bot Chef installed in my home.