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CCFB News» July 2022

Robotic chefs bring artificial intelligence on the table

07/02/2022 @ 12:30 pm

Nala Robotics’ chefs prepare dishes without human intervention. Using artificial intelligence and machine learning, the robot can cook any type of cuisine and learns to perfect its product. (Photo courtesy of Nala Robotics, Arlington Heights)


Deftly wielding kitchen utensils and carefully measuring ingredients, the chef stirs, then flips a pan to achieve a golden brown on evenly cooked ingredients. Unlike other chefs who spend years training and working in kitchens to perfect their skills, Chef Nala mastered a new recipe on her first try and is adept at any type of cuisine.


Nala (pronounced NAW-la) is a robot powered by artificial intelligence and can cook millions of recipes without human intervention.


“Nala is a fully automated robotic chef. What it does is take care of any recipes and cooks the food, taking the roles of the chef and the cook,” Nala’s creator Ajay Sunkara told FarmWeek. Sunkara is the founder of Nala Robotics, a technology company based in Arlington Heights.


A software engineer, Sunkara applied machine learning and artificial intelligence to cooking when he saw a need. “I noticed there was no technology advancement in the food preparation industry for a long time,” he said.


The software engineer explained any type of recipe may be uploaded to a secure database. Ingredients are sourced from suppliers, and people prep the raw ingredients for Nala, “very similar to how it’s done in a restaurant,” Sunkara added.


Nala takes the cooking from there.


Using the automated chefs, dishes are prepared, taste tested and refined before they are uploaded. With its artificial intelligence, Nala gets better each day, learning and perfecting the recipes the more it cooks, according to Sunkara.


Nala Robotics launched a fully automated kitchen in November in Naperville’s Mall of India. One Mean Chicken offered wings and fried chicken cooked by Nala. Since then, the company opened three additional restaurants, specializing in Thai, Indian and burgers, in the same location.


Sunkara sees robots offering solutions to some of the issues faced in the food preparation and restaurant sectors. He pointed out the big demand for hygiene and contactless food preparation, especially since the pandemic.


“Nala is touchless,” he said. “Food can be prepared in a perfect environment.”


Labor shortages are another challenge. Unlike Nala’s human counterparts, the robot can cook 24/7 and doesn’t need to take breaks.


And remote locations no longer are an impediment to recruit talented chefs. Nala Robotics is working with a client located in a remote town in the Canadian Rockies where it is hard to find talented staff. Sunkara explained a chef located anywhere in the world could supply recipes for Nala to prepare in the remote town.


“A chef in London could open a restaurant in a small, remote Illinois town and it would serve his same, delicious meals,” Sunkara said.


Sunkara envisioned farmers using Nala to prepare foods right on the farm, reducing the need to ship them for processing and packaging. That would decrease the potential for food spoilage and waste, he added. “It is key for farmers to know this technology is available,” Sunkara said, adding smaller units are available.


Nala offers an extra pair of hands for food preparation, but the robot chef isn’t coming to take people’s jobs, Sunkara stressed. “We’ve seen that same argument in the software industry. The robots will improve the quality of life. It can actually help solve problems and provide huge benefits,” he said, adding that artificial intelligence will create more quality jobs and entrepreneurs.


“The food preparation industry has been a little slow (in technology advancement). The pandemic slowed that,” Sunkara said. “There’s always a golden era for every technology. Food preparation is catching up, and I see this as key growth.”

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