Tsu, Japan The ability to discern good wine from bad, name the specific brand from a tiny sip and recommend a complementary cheese would seem to be about as human a skill as there is.
In Japan, robots are doing it.
Researchers at NEC System Technologies and Mie University have designed a robot that can taste - an electromechanical sommelier able to identify dozens of different wines, cheeses and hors d'oeuvres.
"There are all kinds of robots out there doing many different things," said Hideo Shimazu, director of the NEC System Technology Research Laboratory and a joint-leader of the robot project. "But we decided to focus on wine because that seemed like a real challenge."
How it works
Last month, they unveiled the fruits of their two-year effort - a green-and-white prototype with eyes, a head that swivels and a mouth that lights up whenever the robot talks.
The "tasting" is done elsewhere.
At the end of the robot's left arm is an infrared spectrometer. When objects are placed up against the sensor, the robot fires off a beam of infrared light. The reflected light is then analyzed in real time to determine the object's chemical composition.
"All foods have a unique fingerprint," Shimazu said. "The robot uses that data to identify what it is inspecting right there on the spot."
When it has identified a wine, the robot speaks up in a childlike voice. It names the brand and adds a comment or two on the taste, such as whether it is a buttery chardonnay or a full-bodied shiraz, and what kind of foods might go well on the side.
Shimazu said the robots could be "personalized," or programmed to recognize the kinds of wines its owner prefers and recommend new varieties to fit its owner's taste. Because the robot is analyzing the chemical composition of the wine or food placed before it, it also can alert its owner to possible health issues, gently warning against fatty or salty products.
That capability has other useful applications. Given three ripe, identical-looking apples to analyze, the robot was able without taking a bite to correctly single out one as sweet and the other two as a bit sour.
But sommeliers need not fear for their jobs just yet.
Of the thousands of wines on the market, the robot can be programmed to accurately identify only a few dozen at most.
It also has more trouble with the task after the bottle has been opened and the wine begins to breathe and thus transform chemically.
"Wines are notoriously similar in their spectral fingerprints," Shimazu said. "The variation this robot detects is very subtle."
Some of the mistakes it makes would get a human sommelier fired - or worse.
When a reporter's hand was placed against the robot's taste sensor, it was identified as prosciutto. A cameraman was mistaken for bacon.
The 2-foot-tall robot also is expensive.
"Buying one of these would cost about as much as a new car," Shimazu said. "We'd like to bring that down to 100,000 yen ($1,000) or less for the tasting sensor if we were to put it on the market."
He said there is no plan yet to actually market the robot, though the sensor could be available as early as next year.
"We are getting a lot of business offers and a lot of interest," he said. "But we see this more as a symbol of our technological ability than as a profitable product right now."
Mie University engineering professor Atsushi Hashimoto, the project's other co-leader, acknowledged there is much room for improvement.
But he said the robot could be used in the near future at wineries to test the taste of each bottle without actually unscrewing any corks.
"It's still like a child," he said. "But not a completely ignorant one."
Industry experts note the shortcomings but agree on the robot's possibilities.
"I see the potential to analyze expensive and old wine to say whether it is authentic or not," said Philippe Bramaz of the Italian winemaker Calzaluga. "Auction houses such as Sotheby's and Christie's could use this technology to test wine without opening it."