If the food-centric technological advancements of 2018 are any indication, humans are closer than ever to a world in which they no longer have to interact with each other at restaurants, and the very act of consumption may soon be in for a major disruption. Automated delivery vehicles, robot cooks and servers, and new ways to experience flavor and meet daily nutritional standards will soon be the status quo. Here’s a look back at the major food tech advances of 2018.
Gadgets, gizmos, and dodads galore
In January, at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, Pizza Hut and Toyota teamed up to announce a terrifying driverless concept vehicle that, once the plans comes to fruition, will cook pies and deliver them straight to customers’ doors. For some reason, the two companies designed this thing to look like a giant toaster on wheels instead of, say, a normal-looking car or truck that wouldn’t scare the living daylights out of any innocent pedestrians or motorists in its path. The “e-Pallette,” as the vehicle is called, will reportedly debut in 2020. Pizza Hut’s U.S. president Artie Starrs says it will allow his company to “define the pizza delivery experience of the future.”
Introducing the first Pizza Hut fully autonomous delivery concept vehicle. Excited for our future with @Toyota #CES2018 pic.twitter.com/YGNQUgijha— Pizza Hut (@pizzahut) January 8, 2018
In other displays at CES, tech enthusiasts gazed upon kitchen appliances with built-in tablets and Amazon Alexa connectivity, bottle openers attached to bluetooth speakers, and robots that both deliver beer and serve food and drink at the airport.
But the most interesting product may have been a countertop dishwasher that also boasts the ability to cook seafood: The Heatworks Tetra will be appreciated for its compact size and the ability to make its owners rationalize their living situations. If one has the ability to avoid washing dishes by hand and steam lobster in their own 350-square-foot home, things can’t be too bad, right? Pair this with BuzzFeed’s new single-burner smart induction cooktop, and anyone can transform an abode the size of Elaine Benes’s cleaning-closet apartment into a professional restaurant kitchen.
Replacing old foods with new sensations
Those who are growing tired of the increasingly annoying marketing stunts and online personas cultivated by major fast-food brands will be wishing for simpler times if Soylent, a bottled solid-food replacement developed (and mostly consumed) by Silicon Valley tech bros, breaks into the mainstream. Despite a history of causing violent illnesses with its complex recipes, in February, chief executive officer Bryan Crowley proclaimed Soylent is “coming for fast food.” He went on to ominously say, “This isn’t a tech product — when people see it, we want them to think about food.” While Crowley’s goals are ambitious, it could be tough for Soylent to overcome the obstacle of being a product that people need reminding is food.
A more optimistic development in the science of eating came from New York City-based startup Analytical Flavor Systems, which in May revealed it is attempting to use artificial intelligence to create hyper-personalized flavors for snack foods. The company’s Gastrograph AI platform aims to bring about “a day when we’ll each have a Doritos of our own.” In addition to a whole new world of flavor, the future looks bright for the avocado, the berry that is so beloved by millennials and so loathed by mortgage lenders. In June, Apeel Sciences, a startup with backers that include billionaire Microsoft founder Bill Gates, announced it had found a way to keep avocados at peak ripeness for twice as long, a development that is expected to decrease food waste in supermarket produce sections. Maybe the future isn’t doomed to be a dystopian nightmare, after all.
The robots are taking over
Or, maybe it is. At its I/O conference in May, Google unveiled AI technology that allows restaurants to use a robotic voice-answering service to take reservations, and the voice is so well done, it can trick diners into believing they’re on the phone with a real person. The program is getting smarter and more intuitive with each reservation it takes, and it seems to be a safe bet high-powered executives will one day employ their own disembodied robotic voices to book tables at fancy restaurants. While we are reportedly still far away from an era of robots calling other robots on the phone, it doesn’t take much imagination to jump to the end of the page and see what the inventor, author, and futurist Ray Kurzweil termed as an age of spiritual machines, when technologies created by humans will evolve beyond human intelligence and begin to experience human emotions.
Hopefully they won’t experience the bad ones.