Washington State University has added a new assistant to its food science research team, and it's not exactly human. According to Oregon Public Broadcasting, professor Carolyn Ross ordered a machine known as an "electric tongue" to help her team in the research lab of the School of Food Science. While the machine does not resemble an actual tongue, it serves the same purpose as one. The $90,000 contraption — purchased from French company Alpha Moss — includes a robotic arm with a sensor that is dipped into food or beverages. The sensor detects sweet, sour, salty, bitter, spicy, metallic, and umami flavors.
One of the first tests for the "tongue" was a collaboration between a research team at the university and Chateau Ste Michelle — a winery based in Woodinville, Wash., which is about 20 miles north of Seattle. Their study aimed to examine the sugar and carbonation levels in sparkling wine, which would then help winemakers know how sweet and bubbly to make their product. First, a tasting panel of 120 people tasted several samples of wine and rated the aroma and taste. Next, it was the robot's turn. The combination of the machine's results and the descriptors provided by human taste testers result in a much more accurate feedback to aid the development process of different foods and beverages.
In many ways, the machine is better at tasting than humans. Unlike humans, the machine can analyze up to 20 different wines in one quick sitting and is able to go on tirelessly for hours. Human tastebuds can become saturated and have trouble detecting flavors after a few tastings, a problem the machine's e-tongue doesn't have.
Although the machine may surpass human ability in some areas, humans are still a key part of the process. While the machine uses biosensors and statistics to analyze data, it collaborates with scientists and tasters who use their brains and taste buds, reports Washington State University News. One of Ross's PhD students, Charles Diako explains, "The e-tongue gives an objective measurement of taste profiles and we try to correlate that to what happens in human sensory evaluation." Rather than detecting flavors, as humans do, the robotic tongue differentiates between taste compounds on a molecular level. Ross explains further, "Human evaluation is more sensitive and integrates a huge amount of information and perception in response. This technology won't replace human evaluation." She goes on to say, "The complexity of our perception can't be replicated by an instrument."
Of course this isn't the only robotic machine that has stepped in to help out the food world. There's a pancake-flipping robotic chef created by RobotHow and drone waiters at a restaurant in Singapore. An interactive sushi restaurant in Hong Kong that requires no human interaction, a technicolor robot restaurant in Tokyo, and the rise of several robot-run eateries in China has some worried that technology could eventually replace restaurant staff all together — especially in the fast food industry.
Video: Watch the "electric tongue" in action at Washington State University's School of Food Science