“Is This Even Real?” writes NPR’s Jacob Goldstein. “No idea what’s going on here, but I love it.” The UK newspaper The Daily Mail is similarly breathless: “Say goodbye to ketchup stains: Incredible device can scoop up ‘liquid’ spills without ANY mess.”
It’s true–the video of Furukawakikou’s new SWITL robotic hand scooping up ketchup and mayonnaise really does have to be seen to be believed. But just for that reason, we shouldn’t undersell the teflon scoop’s original use case: automating hand processes in a factory-scale Japanese bakery.
If all you’ve ever eaten is pre-sliced, store-bought, nutrition/flavor-scarce Wonder Bread, it might seem like industry-scale automation has nowhere left to go in the food industry. If you’ve ever eaten and tasted the difference in a genuinely handmade loaf, you start to see how hard it is to translate from the latter to the former. You might even need to invent a jaw-dropping new machine with plenty of applications we probably can’t even foresee just to start to solve that problem.
Let’s not fetishize the handmade for its own sake. Breads lost their flavor and nutritional value because of the limitations of industrial production, not the other way around. A robotic hand that can deliver high-quality foods to millions at scale and cost is a game-changer.
This might be especially true outside the U.S. and the already-industrialized West. It’s been a long time since food production changes disrupted more than our dinner plans. As food historian Rachel Laudan writes, in the rest of the world, it’s been a different story.
[R]ight up until about twenty years ago, large numbers of Mexican women were spending five hours a day grinding [maize]. Just imagine Mexico City: every household had somebody grinding tortillas. The landscape of Mexico City up until fifty years ago, and in many ways even later, is one of bakeries that make wheat breads for the upper class or perhaps for breakfast or the evening meal, and then in every household, somewhere in a back room, somebody grinding maize to make tortillas for the main meal of the day…
And so now, what does the landscape of Mexico City look like in terms of grains? It’s a whole series of Walmarts with in-house tortillerias and bakeries and shelf after shelf of Bimbo [the Mexican equivalent of Wonder Bread].
Of course, there are trade-offs. Bimbo is not as good as a bolillo [a traditional small Mexican loaf]. A machine-made tortilla is not anything like a homemade tortilla – it’s not even in the same universe.
Mexican women that I have talked to are very explicit about this trade-off. They know it doesn’t taste as good; they don’t care. Because if they want to have time, if they want to work, if they want to send their kids to school, then taste is less important than having that bit of extra money, and moving into the middle class. They have very self-consciously made this decision. In the last ten years, the number of women working in Mexico has gone up from about thirty-three percent to nearly fifty percent. One reason for that—it’s not the only reason, but it is a very important reason—is that we’ve had a revolution in the processing of maize for tortillas.
The two transformations fuel each other. Women couldn’t enter the middle-class workforce when they were still spending five hours a day grinding corn for tortillas. And they couldn’t do anything but spend that time, assuming they wanted their families to eat, until the food process was industrialized. So now a generation of women in Mexico (and elsewhere throughout the world) has become an industrial consumer, working and shopping and eating in the modern economy, brought to you by Wal-Mart.
But what if we didn’t have to make that bargain? What if we could have something that was still very much like the handmade bolillo or tortilla, but at the scale required to cut out the five hours of labor per household? And what if we could do it without turning over most of our food production and sales to the monoliths like Bimbo?