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Manufacturers Are Using Robots to Standardise What Chinese Food Tastes Like

Equipped with artificial tongues, eyes, and noses, machines in China are deciding what's most delicious and "authentic" for humans to eat.
May 7, 2019, 8:23am
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When you say you love "Chinese food," what do you really mean? Do you mean greasy, sweet American Chinese-style takeouts? Or do you mean those spicy dishes from the Sichuan province? Or perhaps you mean any of the dishes from China's eight distinct cuisines that are defined by geographic locations, cultural shifts, and available ingredients. The great thing about Chinese cuisine that everything, even staples like tea and rice, vary from place to place.

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But for years, the Chinese food industry has been trying to standardise certain food products, like garlic sauce and vinegar, to its domestic and global markets for the sake of increasing quality, efficiency and (surprise!) profit. And a government-funded program has found a solution for this mission: artificial intelligence.

According to a report submitted to China’s central government last month, more than 10 of China’s traditional food manufacturers are reporting significant profits after taking part in a three-year program by the government where machines serve as the taste-testers.

This is how it works: machines installed along various points of the food production line ensure all the products smell, taste, and look the same. The machines are connected by a neural algorithm, a “brain,” followed by a series of sensors that mimic the human nose, tongue, and eyes.

The machines can "see" and "smell" the food without tampering with the food but the machines need to poke the products with an artificial tongue to "taste" it. A panel of food experts has trained the AI to learn and mimic just how people react to the food, allowing the machines to operate at about 90 percent of the human level.

The program has proved efficient for manufacturers and has yielded a lot of profit since it started.

The robots are currently tasting, smelling, and looking at cured pork belly, black rice vinegar, fine dried noodles, Chinese yellow wine, and tea. And food manufacturers are bringing in serious cash. The robots had boosted the manufacturers’ profits by more than 300 million yuan ($44.5 million USD) since 2015, the China National Light Industry Council said in the report.

But given the complexities of what certain food should taste like based on the different cuisines present in the country, the government deciding what food should taste like is a touchy issue. Sun Lin, director of the China Cuisine Association, the biggest society of chefs in China, said that judgment on the taste of food should not be handed over to robots.

“Chinese food is extremely sophisticated," she told the South China Morning Post. "It is probably the most difficult to standardise in the world."