Thursday, August 31, 2023

Will Artificial Intelligence Come to Our Kitchen?

The best of August: ripe local apricots!

In my kitchen, as far as I know, no intelligent robots are likely to replace me and Len, the two cooks of the household. Could artificially intelligent (AI) robot workers eventually replace us humans in our own kitchens? Can artificial intelligence even come up with a decent recipe? One answer: "ChatGPT is smart enough to generate a recipe, but it’s not attuned to what actually tastes good." (source)

Very expensive robots in commercial settings do tasks like making rice balls for sushi or flipping burgers. Robots have done quality control for mass food production for a long time. But robots' capabilities limit each one to a narrow range of responsibilities. In laboratories, experimental robots recently have learned to taste whether an omelette has enough salt. But are practical robots ready to work in home kitchens, creating actual food, making the kind of varied menus we normally eat? Can they even do the dishes and put them away? Not yet, I think.

"Are Robots Really Destined to Take Over Restaurant Kitchens"
An insightful look at the current state of very expensive food prep robots from 2016.
"In 20 years, it will just be a commonplace fact that C3PO and his less humanoid brethren
are the ones making your lunchtime Chipotle burritos."

What robots are in kitchens now?

Rice cookers definitely can sense when the rice is done. Dishwashers -- which have always been kind of a kitchen robot -- definitely decide when the dishes are clean. Bread machines can sense when it's time to move on to the next step in bread-making, but their bread isn't as good as hand-made bread. Such devices, which have been around for years, do represent a kind of limited AI. One automated device we all would like is a robot that loads and unloads the dishwasher for us. Don't hold your breath. A self-cleaning stove top would also be nice.

What about the upcoming robot generation? So far, the currently newsworthy AI systems like the famous ChatGPT mainly function as text generators -- a limited capability in terms of usefulness in the kitchen. The only application seems to be finding or inventing recipes. 

Cookbooks and Recipes in Our Kitchen

Our recipe hunting endeavors currently consist of reading cookbooks and online recipe archives -- no AI involved. It's not apparent to me that a bot could replace what we do, since we know what we would like to eat, we know how we like our food seasoned, and we know what we have on hand and what we are willing or able to purchase. And we have different foods every day. Eventually, AI may help us, I guess. 

Let's see where we found the recipes that we cooked this month:

New this month: Mark Bittman’s revised edition of How to Cook Everything.
I gave it to Len for his birthday, because he’s becoming so interested in cooking.

The Rye Baker is one of Len’s trusted baking books. One of our favorite breads requires two starters,
as shown here. The total time for preparing and baking this loaf is not extremely long, and the result is delicious!

As I’ve said in previous posts, we are very satisfied when we cook from Andrea Nguyen’s recipes.

Andrea Nguyen’s fish with turmeric served on a bed of lettuce, herbs, and Chinese noodles.
The fish is topped with fried dill weed.

Fuchsia Dunlop’s cookbook, photographed with the leftovers from the salad we made.

Fuchsia Dunlop’s Dan-Dan noodles made with leftover Costco chicken and broccolini. Very spicy!

Bean sprouts, wheat pasta, many condiments, and chicken: a cold salad.
It’s a simple-sounding combination, but Fuchsia Dunlop's methods make it complicated -- and good.

Using the New York Times Cooking Archive

From the New York Times: sheet pan vegetable medley: broccolini, grape tomatoes, lemon, onion, feta cheese.

New York Times grilled eggplant served with rice.

New York Times Soy-Braised Tofu with shiitake mushrooms. Recipe by Kay Chun.
I requested a recipe containing tofu and mushrooms, and this was the very satisfactory result!

Salade de Chèvre Chaud (Warm goat cheese salad) from the New York Times

Grilling without a recipe

A vegetarian barbecue using a web-inspired soy butter for basting.

Can AI figure all this out?

A prematurely released AI recipe program received a lot of attention recently because of its nonchalant descriptions of inedible and even dangerous concoctions. Some of its suggestions, according to an article in the Guardian, included a “fresh breath” mocktail made with bleach; ant-poison and glue sandwiches; “bleach-infused rice surprise;” and “methanol bliss” – a kind of turpentine-flavored french toast. Admittedly, the users listed inappropriate ingredients in their queries, but the bot wasn't savvy enough to recognize them, and turned them into recipes like "mosquito repellant roast potatoes." OK, this one needs work!

Several experiments with ChatGPT and other bots did result in pretty good recipes being generated when the user entered reasonable lists of ingredients. For example, on Good Morning America, there was a report of a pretty good lentil and shrimp recipe that ChatGPT provided after several iterations, though it sounds like the user added quite a bit of human intelligence to the process! (source)

Many stories highlight inappropriate AI recommendations having to do with food. One such strange result from Microsoft that I found interesting was a travel guide to Ottawa that suggested a visit to the local food bank as the third activity on your city tour: you were to go there between a visit to the National War Memorial and attending an Ottawa Senators hockey game. Helpfully, the description suggested that you visit the food bank with an empty stomach! Obviously the AI generator was unaware that visiting a food bank isn't a tourist thing. Or maybe some very strange human produced this document; Microsoft was a bit evasive. No, I don't believe a human created such a bizarre list.

UPDATE ON AI FOODIE SCAMS: Mushroom hunting is a risky business, and some recent AI-generated guidebooks make it even more dangerous; for example they suggest that tasting wild mushrooms is a way to ID them. (Never taste an unidentified mushroom!!) Potential buyers of these phony books, sold on, are warned that “the authors are invented, their credentials are invented, and their species ID will kill you.” (source)

Another report of an actual experiment using an AI recipe generator was ambiguous: “Recipe for disaster? I tried Botatouille, BuzzFeed’s AI kitchen helper”  The experimenter had a rather frustrating experience and ended up with nothing very good to eat. The interface by which the author asked for recipes was very poorly designed; for example, if she told the bot that she had no shallots, it would propose MORE recipes with shallots. The bot favored brand-name ready-made products; that is, it was already commercialized. None of the recipes were particularly good. 

An interview with a recipe and menu creator named Alex Hill, as reported in this article, made sense to me:

“While she sees how AI can be used to make things easier for busy, working parents, she said these programs couldn’t duplicate the cultural and personal history that informs what people cook. For Hill, this means the recipes she makes are connected to what her mother has cooked or meals she’s shared with loved ones while mourning a breakup or celebrating a new job.”

Of course the AI chatbots may learn more over time, but the more I read, the more I suspect that there’s no substitute for knowing how ingredients taste. The successful results seem to involve a lot of coaxing from the human user.

Futuristic Robot Helpers?

In "Sleeper" (1973) Woody Allen disguised himself as one of the
household robots in the future society to which he had been transported.
Are we any closer to having such devices in our daily lives?

Does AI have a future in our kitchens? Well, we know that a kitchen is a complicated place, and selecting recipes is only a tiny part of the game. “The end of work: which jobs will survive the AI revolution” (Guardian, August 19) offers some observations about a few areas that may profit from AI --but not kitchens. The author suggests that people who are resourceful will find ways to make a living no matter what the robots and chatbots and other AI gadgets do. I suspect that home kitchens will keep on producing hand-made meals, too.

AI for sorting trash?

Meanwhile, in our own kitchens today, we not only deal with food but also with trash — and that’s an area for bots to be useful. Right now, it's up to individuals in their own kitchens to determine how to discard the many containers that their food comes with. No matter how responsible you are, you can't get recycling choices all right every time, and the consequences are a lot of things end up in landfill or incinerators that could instead be recycled or composted.

Artificial intelligence has the potential to improve the efficiency of processing plants were we send our trash. Sorting bots that separate usable plastics, glass, cardboard, etc are already at work and in the future this can be improved. An article in the Atlantic, “The Future of Recycling Is Sorty McSortface,” describes the potential for sorting trash. 

“In a decade, recycling bots could be everywhere, helping facilities churn out perfectly sorted bales of junk that companies can turn into something new. But recycling, even souped up with AI and robotics, will always have limitations. Recycling tech can treat only the symptoms of unconstrained consumerism, not the disease of companies that are dumping far too many single-use products into the world.”

Do you think we will eventually have AI sorters installed on our kitchen garbage cans -- who knows? 

Blog post and food photos © 2023 mae sander

Wednesday, August 30, 2023

Walking Around

Walks at Kent Lake and in our neighborhood.







Photos © 2023 mae_sander

Monday, August 28, 2023

Beautiful Hawaii

 Visiting Maui

Sunset in Maui, June 14, 2003.

Maui, ʻĪao Valley State Monument, 2003.

This beautiful monument, rich in cultural and spiritual values, marks the site of the battle of Kepaniwai where the forces of King Kamehameha I conquered the Maui army in 1790. In the valley behind me, you can see a demonstration of agriculture before the colonial era: cultivation of crops like taro, sweet potatoes, and yams. Like so many of the attractions of the island, the Iao monument was nearly empty when we visited, but is now so overburdened that non-residents are required to make reservations in order to visit when it's open. 

As tourists, we enjoyed many features of this beautiful island, and we mourn the loss of the historic town, Lahaina, and the suffering of the people there. We felt great awe for the natural wonders of sea, volcano, and stunning mountains, and we regret the ravages of human mishandling of the gifts of the Hawaiian gods. Today I'm thinking about all the people of Hawaii: those who suffered great losses from the fire in Lahaina, and all the others whose "Aloha" spirit has been so kind to us through the years.


I have been reading some analysis of why this disaster happened. beyond the simple and obvious fact that climate change has caused a severe drop in rainfall in Hawaii, making fires much more likely. In the New York Times, "A Legacy of Colonialism Set the Stage for the Maui Wildfires" takes a penetrating look at the deeper reasons why Maui is so vulnerable, and how the human cost of the fires will fall very unequally on the remaining Native Hawaiians as well as on other poor residents, while the wealthy, the tourists, the landowners, and the heirs of the colonial past will survive and even come out ahead. The long-term results of colonialism and big agriculture are unfortunate:

"While Upcountry residents in Maui face water shortages, rationing and fines if they fail to conserve water, luxury resorts across the island are allowed to keep their taps running. The surge of tourism has caused housing costs to skyrocket and has given rise to a local economy focused on the needs of those just passing through. These imperial legacies combined to create a tinderbox, waiting to ignite."

Maui Sugar Mill, 2009. Closed 2016.

Maui's agricultural era is mainly over -- the big plantations of coffee, sugar, and pineapples are no longer producing, and the fields have been abandoned by the mainly absentee owners. Besides decreasing employment opportunities (forcing more and more unskilled workers into the tourist industry) this has caused the abandoned fields to become a fire hazard, and an ecological mess.

Colonialism has left a legacy that will badly affect the victims of the Lahaina fire:

"The State of Hawaii has said it will protect locals from land speculators. But if the bureaucracy of emergency management stalls out or fails, people who have temporary hotel vouchers or are overstaying their welcome on their cousins’ couches will be left with few options other than to sell. Opportunistic profiteering often follows an emergency, but it’s crucial to understand that those quick grabs of resources and power often depend on and exacerbate existing fault lines of imperial extraction."

Another recent article "How 19th-Century Pineapple Plantations Turned Maui into a Tinderbox" describes the slow process of change since European and American colonialism took over the island. Native agriculture was respectful of the land and its potential, while plantations were extractive. 

"To prevent more fires from engulfing communities ... it’s not enough to merely return water to streams. Maui needs to resurrect the wetlands and ecosystems that, for centuries, provided not only sustenance but also a natural buffer against disasters. Lahaina’s original name, Lahaina i ka malu ‘ulu o Lele, translates to 'Lahaina lies in the shade of the breadfruit trees of Lele' – a reference to the large breadfruit groves that once fed tens of thousands of people."

Swimming in Maui, 2009.

Kona Coffee

The Big Island has been another favorite of ours, and we have stayed in Kona a number of times over the years. Our favorite activities there have been in or near the water: scuba, snorkeling, beach-going, looking at the scenery.... On our many visits, we have also enjoyed seeing the native forests near the volcano, watching volcanic activity, dining in many excellent restaurants, cooking local food in condo kitchens, and visiting the coffee farms that face the ocean on the mountain slopes. 

At the Kona Farmers' Market, 2007.
Kona Lisa Coffee Mug
Of course I love anything Mona Lisa!

Unlike agriculture in Maui, Kona coffee farms are currently successful endeavors -- though here, too, unpredictable rainfall at the wrong time of year, insect infestations, and plant diseases have caused some crop failures. Last year saw extreme decrease in the coffee harvest, though this year the rainfall was adequate and the yield may be better. (source

Kona coffee is grown in a very small area, and thus more vulnerable to environmental damage than the huge farms in Central America and Africa. The cost of living for Hawaiian workers is high, and it's part of the USA so they have higher wages and a better standard of living than the workers in other sub-tropical coffee areas. Most of the farms are very small-scale and the owners do much of the labor, as we learned when we toured two farms on different visits. 

Kona coffee is considered a very high-end product, though in purchasing one has to be careful to obtain 100% Kona, not a blend with other coffee. We have been very fond of Kona coffee since purchasing some in 2007 at the Kona farmers' market from the then-owners of  Kona Lisa Coffee,. After a visit to the farm, we had it shipped to us in Michigan, but the constant price rises were too much and we haven't done so in quite a while. A pound of Kona Lisa Coffee beans is now $42, while single-origin beans from Central America cost $12-15 a pound at our local supplier. The local shop has 100% Kona for $49 a pound, alas.

Coffee beans, called "cherries" in a huge hopper ready to be hulled, dried, fermented, and roasted.
From a tour of Greenwell Farms, Kona, 2015.

Blog post © 2023 mae sander
Photos © 2003-2023

Sunday, August 27, 2023

Alfred Hitchcock Films

Alfred Hitchcock (1899-1980) is one of the most respected film directors of the mid-20th century. He made over 50 films, first in England, and after 1939, in Hollywood. I've been a big admirer of his films and have watched many of them. Among my favorites are the two versions of "The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934 and 1956), "The 39 Steps" (1935), "Strangers on a Train" (1951), "To Catch a Thief" (1956), and "North by Northwest" (1959). 

Recently, we watched two of Hitchcock's early films that were made before he left England for Hollywood, and one, "Foreign Correspondent," from 1940. Two of them feature spy stories, about dangerous men with mysterious middle-European accents who plan to harm or betray England -- and a contrasting woman who helps thwart their evil plans. These both include a love story that compliments the suspenseful plot. And both reflect Hitchcock's fantastic eye for black-and-white contrasts in imagery that intensifies the atmospheric story and contributes to building suspense.

"Sabotage" -- a really good suspense film with great Hitchcock black-and-white imagery.

"Foreign Correspondent" --  good but not quite as captivating.

"The Secret Agent" -- also from 1936. A spy story about World War I. Same enemies.

 Review © 2023 mae sander

Saturday, August 26, 2023

The Toledo Museum of Art

The Toledo Museum of Art is less than an hour’s drive from our house, and it’s quite an excellent museum. We visited there last Wednesday after spending the morning at the lotus ponds at Lake Erie Metropark, which is around half way from Ann Arbor to Toledo (photos here).

The museum has a magnificent facade and front entrance. The useful entrance is at the back
on the parking-lot side. A lovely mural is at the end of the hall by the stairs to the main floor.
This tile mural is titled “Apollo” and is by Henri Matisse.

The large and imposing entrance hall on the main floor was busy: the workers were installing a large sculpture
by Jeff Koons titled “Balloon Monkey.”

A special exhibit poster was very exciting to see! 

“Black Orpheus: Jacob Lawrence and the Mbari Club” documented the visits of American painter
Jacob Lawrence to Nigeria in the 1960s, as well as displaying works from a collective of African artists from that time.

“Beached” from the War Series by Jacob Lawrence.

Jacob Lawrence (1917 – 2000) was an American painter. His portrayal of African-American historical subjects and contemporary life is very interesting. His two trips to Nigeria gave him added inspiration, as well as personal contact with a group of dynamic modern African painters. 

A Nigerian market scene by Jacob Lawrence.

Cutout murals explained the art and artists in each section of the exhibit.

These cutouts were based on the mural on the art studio space used by the collective that Lawrence visited.
The exhibit invited visitors to sit and look through some examples of the journal published by these artists.

“The Lazy Hunters, and the Poisonous Wrestlers, Lizard Ghost, and the Cobra” by the Nigerian artist
known as Twins Seven-Seven (1944-2011).

“People in Other Rooms” by Jacob Lawrence.

“Slavery” by Jacob Afolabia (b. 1940)

An activity space for visitors to the exhibit.

Blog post and photos © 2023 mae sander.