Can an AI robot taste ‘authentic’ Chinese food?

May 07, 2019

Humans might still be debating the authenticity of certain Chinese dishes, but factories in China believe robots already have the answer.

More than 10 manufacturers of mass-produced Chinese food products have been using taste-testing robots for over three years now to ensure the quality and authenticity of their products, according to a report submitted to the Chinese government last month.

The foods tested include cured pork belly, black rice vinegar, fine dried noodles, Chinese yellow wine, and tea.

In the past, the job was done by human tasters, but the process was slow and the assessments varied from one person to another.

The robots, on the other hand, can complete a test in under one second and do it all day, according to the China National Light Industry Council, the author of the report.

The council says the robots’ accuracy is now almost as high as that of humans.

How it works

The robots, which can learn on the job, are placed at various points along the production line to monitor everything from raw ingredients to the end product.

They have electrical and optical sensors to simulate human eyes, noses, and tongues. A “brain” running a neural network algorithm looks for patterns to ensure all the food has the same color, taste, and smell.

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The visual and olfactory data is collected without destroying the food, but the machines still need to poke the products with an artificial tongue to “taste” them.

A panel of food experts has trained the AI to learn and mimic human reactions, allowing them to operate at about 90% of the human level, according to the report.

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The China National Light Industry Council claims that the AI—developed by a team at Jiangsu University—has boosted manufacturers’ profits by more than $40 million since 2015.

Jiangsu Hengshun Vinegar, which sells its products in 39 countries, saw sales rise by 50% to $265 million last year, with about a third of that credited to the impact of its AI taster.

A senior manager at the company confirmed the accuracy of the figures but declined to elaborate.

Policing authenticity

Local governments in China do issue edicts on how to authentically prepare dishes of regional cuisines, and they can get quite fussy.

In 2015, the city of Yangzhou outlined a standard for its namesake dish, Yangzhou fried rice, a mix of meat and vegetables.

Yangzhou fried rice.
Yangzhou fried rice. / Photo: Shutterstock

The guidelines said the dish should have five colors—red, green, yellow, white, and orange—and contain a salty rather than sweet taste. (Some variations of the dish include raisins.)

Sichuang yuxiangrousi.
Sichuang yuxiangrousi. / Photo: Shutterstock

In Sichuan Province, every slice of yuxiangrousi 魚香肉絲, a shredded pork dish in garlic sauce, must be exactly 10 centimeters long, while the provincial government in Shandong has set out similarly exacting regulations for nearly 60 dishes in Qufu, the hometown of Confucius.

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Unsurprisingly, such government regulations have not been effectively enforced due to widespread opposition.

Sun Lin, director of international affairs at the China Cuisine Association, the country’s largest society of chefs, says that judgment on taste should not be handed over to robots.

“Chinese food is extremely sophisticated,” she says. “It is probably the most difficult to standardize in the world.”

Eight chefs from the same area, for example, might produce eight versions of the same dish with different flavor profiles.

“It’s hard to judge which is the most authentic,” Sun says. “I don’t think AI can tell the difference within the next two or three decades.”

Adapted from an article first published in the South China Morning Post.

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