There were evidently a lot of robots roaming the floors of CES, the annual Consumer Electronics Show. There was the RobotBase Personal Robot that follows you around, has a sweet face but no name (you're supposed to name her to make it more personal) but with mad skilz and talents. (As Frederic at TechCrunch noted, "the robot can tell your kids a bedtime story while you are spending some quality time with your Netflix queue.”) There's the hilarious Budgee, (It’s Glamourous![sic] It’s Helpful! It’s Cool!) which follows you around, carrying your bags or your groceries, and the Budgee website wins the prize the worst Photoshopping of stock photos ever seen on the Internet. 

And then there is the COOKI, a robot that sits on your kitchen counter and makes you dinner. At first I thought it was as silly as the others, looking like a 1970s Mr. Coffee with a robot arm stirring vegetables. But the more I look at it, particularly in the framework of the history of our kitchens, how designers have spent 150 years trying to make it more logical and more efficient, the more interesting it gets. Because the fact is, for many people (primarily women), cooking can be serious drudgery. 

frankfurt Kitchen reconstructed

Frankfurt Kitchen reconstructed. (Photo: Wikipedia)

Making the kitchen efficient and easier to use became the goal of many engineers and designers. Margarete Schütte-Lihotzky designed the Frankfurt Kitchen in 1926 that became the model of Taylorist efficiency. Many labor-saving devices started in the kitchen, and with electrification of America came a huge number of tools to make life easier, from the mixmaster to the microwave. 

All the fantasies in the '50s were of a kitchen of the future that did all the work so that mom could dance instead of cook, (3:20 into video above) — just like she did before she married that jerk.

In the '60s, the kids have come along and the fantasies change, but we still want the kitchen to do the work. The computer tells dad he can’t have his hamburger and beer and picks a better menu, just like the apps are supposed to today. 

But those kitchens of the future never happened; instead, our moms got smart and outsourced. There was the Birds Eye revolution in frozen food, the massive growth of fast-food takeout restaurants and the change in supermarkets to feature prepared food instead of just groceries. Because now women work, nobody has servants except the very rich, nobody has time to cook and the kids are just grazing in the fridge. All that store and restaurant-bought food has too much salt, sugar, fat and calories, and all of this is leading to the obesity and health crisis we face today.

In the light of a century of change in the kitchen, the COOKI doesn’t look so kooky. The machine itself appears to be a sort of robotic stir-fry unit on an induction cooktop. (Though it probably should have a wok instead of the flat pan.) You load trays of pre-cut ingredients into the side and it dumps them into the pan when needed, and then the arm goes to work. Personally I could eat stir-fry every night.

But wait, there’s more. It’s not just a machine but an app and a service; you pick the recipes you want on your smartphone and the company prepares “trays of fresh, pre-cut, pre-washed, pre-portioned food, available from Sereneti Kitchen for delivery right to your home.” 

cooki components

I would just program my favorite Fuchsia Dunlop cookbooks into my phone and never look back. 

The delivery component is a bit sketchy; if everyone is working, who's going to be home to receive it? It’s also expensive to distribute food like that, and it doesn’t scale. But I have been writing for years that small fridges make good cities, where people shop daily for fresh food at the local store in their own neighborhood. In Tokyo, everyone picks up the ingredients for dinner at the subway and train stations. No doubt the software could be modified to ping the local greengrocer or food store to have it ready for pickup on the way home. There could be a whole Uber of subcontractors slicing and dicing. And yes, you could always chop your own, although that is the least fun part of cooking.

I'm getting carried away. The purists — like my wife — will want to seriously wound me with their Wüsthofs; they like to cook and to have the time to do it right. 

This is definitely a work in progress and not quite there yet, but there is real ingenuity here in this COOKI robot. A system that can cook real food from fresh ingredients for people who are longer on money than time and who care about what they eat. It's a throwback to the robot kitchen fantasies of the '50s and '60s, a robot that cooks from scratch and gives you the time to play with your kid instead of the robot that reads her stories while you microwave another lasagna.  

The robots that make a difference in our lives will pop up and do something we never expected a robot to do. COOKI could be that kind of thing. Unlike all those rolling robots at CES, this one has legs. 

More about the kitchens of the future:

Lloyd Alter ( @lloydalter ) writes about smart (and dumb) tech with a side of design and a dash of boomer angst.