Nearly every major home appliance brand, including Whirlpool, Samsung, LG, and Haier, showed smart ovens and stoves, smart refrigerators, and smart dishwashers, while other manufacturers displayed smart accessories, like hood fans that turn on automatically when you start generating smoke on the stovetop (hello, deeply seared steak), lights that come on or brighten when you enter the kitchen, a faucet that measures out exact amounts of water with a voice command (no liquid measuring cups needed), home temperature sensors that turn down the heat in the kitchen when you’re cooking up a storm, and doorbells that show you who’s out front and let you open the door automatically while your hands are covered in sticky dough.
I saw refrigerators that give you a creepy security-cam view of what’s on every shelf inside (so you can check inventory remotely while at the supermarket) and let you digitally label that last yogurt as “mom’s.” They can tell you the precise temperature inside both freezer and fridge, and alert you if anything’s too warm or the door’s ajar, not to mention letting you change a fridge compartment into a freezer and back again as needed. The biggest change: Apparently all new fridges are meant to serve as a “family hub” (as Samsung dubs it)—with a huge screen stuck right on the front.
All of these smart appliances sync and operate through your phone or that screen on the fridge door. Among other things, they can help you keep a shopping list and inventory, to reorder products and foods automatically, tell you when those leftovers or that lettuce are starting to go bad, and offer recipes that work with your dietary preferences and/or what you have on hand. Once you select a recipe, some systems start a timeline for you. You say when you want to eat, and it will remind you when to start cooking, automatically preheat your oven, and guide you step by step as you prepare a meal.
How all this is going to play out with the traditional cooking equipment we already have remains to be seen. As we all know, you can make a huge number of recipes with a simple cast-iron skillet, sharp knife, and cutting board, using a fridge, stove, and oven that won’t talk back to you—or watch you cook.
The dark side of all this is that data is constantly gathered on what you’re buying, cooking, and eating, how often you run your dishwasher, and when. If that bothers you, it’s worthwhile to remember that our phones already automatically generate GPS data on our movements that let apps such as Google Maps and Waze give us useful directions and tell us where the bad traffic is while suggesting better routes. All newer cars are “smart,” with fancy key fobs, Bluetooth communications, and backup cameras that spare us craning our necks, not to mention handling tricky parallel parking, hands-free.
Some of this looks like fun: Who wouldn’t like a hand deciding what to make for dinner based on the assortment of stuff you happen to have, or have the hood turn itself on so you can focus on searing? I wouldn’t mind an oven that automatically preheated at the right time—provided it also automatically set the oven rack to the right position (none of those smart ovens are doing that key step, alas, so I predict I’d be doing a lot of shifting red-hot oven racks before cooking).
The giant screen on the fridge worries me a little: As a frugal New Englander, I hope I can buy a new refrigerator only once every 15 (or more) years, but how is that going to hold up technologically when in a mere two years my phone starts to feel like a dinosaur? Periodic software updates can only take you so far.
That particular worry aside, I suspect that many smart kitchen appliances and systems are designed for people who don’t actually like to cook, don’t do it very often, or are very busy with jobs and small kids—times when digital assistance might be a blessing. Another hopeful side of smart kitchen technology is to help elderly people or disabled people live more independently, and let caregivers keep track of problems: I saw a simple device that sends a message when the stove is left on too long (a time interval you can set). Many of these appliances and systems operate using your voice, speaking to Amazon Alexa and Google Assistant, products that are already in use in many Americans’ homes, and more partnerships with those devices are being added to smart appliances all the time.
An Edison Research study co-sponsored by National Public Radio revealed that smart speakers like Google Home and Amazon Echo are owned by one out of six Americans, and the number is growing. An important question for these companies is, "How proactive do you want the device to be?" said Tom Webster, senior vice president at Edison Research, in a seminar at CES 2018. Webster described a future where he would start getting breakfast and his smart device says, "Good morning, Tom. I would not drink that milk; it's past its sell-by date. Do you want me to order more for you?"
The vision often described is to have a “frictionless,” autonomous interoperability with our smart kitchen that lets us focus on other things besides cooking. So while we don’t yet have a Jetsons-style humanoid robot running the kitchen for us, all of these smart, “Internet of Things” (IoT) products working together create something eerily close.
What are your thoughts on the future of cooking and smart kitchens? Tweet me @lisamcmanus with your questions and comments, or just a hello! See photos of more cool (and perplexing) stuff I spotted at #CES2018.