The robot, designed as a 60 cm tall doll, is outfitted with infrared spectroscopic technology along with a computer processor and software. The robot can then emit a voice through its swiveling head and lit up mouth to identify the food, list its ingredients and give advice on potential health-related issues.
NEC System Technologies has been working for the past two years with researchers at Japan's Mie University to combine its robot and pattern recognition systems with their analytical software in developing the robot.
While NEC has been exhibiting the robot as a consumer-oriented gadget for giving advice, the sensor technologies it contains could easily be transformed into a device for performing safety and quality checks on packaged foods and drinks, before they leave the plant.
NEC calls it the "world's first partner robot" with a sense of taste. The spectrometer is fitted into the robot's left arm, which emits a beam of infrared light on objects placed up against it. The robot than analyses the light to determine the chemical make-up.
Tasting by the robot involves the analysis of food components. The analysis includes estimating the major components such as sugar and fat, found in the food, estimating the presence of food components, and estimating the quantities of the identified components.
"The tasting capability of the robot is not the same as that of a human," NEC stated in a press release outlining further improvements in the device's capabilities. "The human sense of taste is synthesized by taste cells on the tongue which senses sweetness, sourness, saltiness, bitterness, and tastiness. Humans do not conduct an analysis of a food's components. We may be able to say that the creation of this robot is somewhat comparable to imitating birds in order to design airplanes."
The tasting robot uses infrared spectroscopic technology to analyze the components of a food. It transmits infrared rays at the food and measures the degree of absorption of certain wavelengths.
Different foods give out different wave shapes, a kind of "food's fingerprint". When a certain molecule is present in a food, a ray of a specific wavelength is absorbed. As a result, the robot can estimate the major components, such as sugar and fat, and the quantities of these components present in a food.
The robot's software is pre-loaded with food information. Last year NEC displayed tests in which the robot identified food without opening the package. It was able to identify between several types of cheese, such as Edam, Gouda and Camembert. It was also able to identify different meat products and breads, such as pain de mie, baguette and croissant.
"When a new food is introduced to the robot, it will compare that food's absorption spectrum against the ones the robot has already cataloged and determine which ones are comparable to the food that has just been introduced," NEC's designers stated. "Also, the robot looks at the absorption rate for certain wavelengths and thus estimates the amount of each component contained in the food."
In July this year NEC System Technologies and Mie University displayed tests at a hotel in Japan in which the robot was able to differentiate between different types of wines.
The robot was able to name the brand and give a brief tasting note, along with some recommendations on compatible foods.
In terms of absorbance spectra, differences among different types of wine are strikingly smaller than those among other types of foods, NEC noted in announcing the development. For this reason it is more challenging for the robot to discriminate between different types of wine than it is to differentiate between other types of food.
"In order for the robot to be able to achieve the ability to differentiate wine we made several improvements," NEC stated. "Also, since the intention was to create a sommelier robot that can taste wine, we also included a feature that selects the wine suited to a customer's taste by carrying on a dialogue with him/her."
NEC says it is working on developing the robot's abilities in the prevention of lifestyle-related diseases and to help in the treatments for those diseases through dietary therapy.