digital gastronomy (2013): abstract

Computer-engineered food - fake or fantasy:
Star Trek's food replicator first appeared on television in 1966. This paper will outline the brief history and current developments in computer engineered food (CEF) production, and will look to possible futures for this and related technologies.

Currently there are two main radically different branches of CEF – the additive, and the manipulative. While the latter works on existing food items with physical manipulation and injection tools on a robotic arm, the former combines processed substrates with synthetic flavourings and colourants into discrete food items. A third rather limited branch employs programmable mixing technology to process, assemble and cook a food item from a specific limited range of ingredients (a fruit cake machine, or a factory in your kitchen).

There are also mature consumer products already available which can be programmed to create three-dimensional forms in chocolate and sugar, but these devices are limited to their single ingredient. These are mature (terminal) technologies which have fallen off the development train.

Much of the literature from CEF engineers, designers and journalists contextualises the technology in the familiar – producing “delicious and nutritious” burgers, hot dogs, drumsticks at the touch of a button; the needy – special nutrition in a hospital or a disaster zone; or the exotic – meals for astronauts. This hints at a technology seeking a purpose. It is also misleading. Why employ very expensive and ultra-slow technologies to produce synthetic fast food? Cheap, balanced nutrition liquids and intubation already exists. And additive technologies cannot work in zero/low gravity. There is scant attention to where/how input ingredients could be stowed onboard the device. There seems no acknowledgement of the limitation of a device's variety of output. Critically, there is no discussion of cleaning these devices or their general food hygiene. So, whither the technology?

There seems little point in using expensive bespoke technology to produce something that already happily exists without that technology. However, it does seem wholly reasonable to employ this technology to create food items which do not currently exist, even items which could not “naturally” exist. This must surely play into the hands of leading-edge technical, molecular, deconstructivist chefs? And the concept of an an honestly 100% unnatural food item is of objective interest to all but the most fundamentalist? But can this technology play any actual part in industrial, professional, or domestic kitchens? The paper will explore these issues.

And what could lie beyond CEF? There have been theoretical discussions in nanotechnology about behavioured (self-replicating) molecules, and the doomsday “grey goo” scenario following an escape by such entities. Side-step this and you will find the world of programmable nano-ingredients which can be switched off and on – literally, digital food. Further still would be a scenario in which a machine could dispense a liquid containing bespoke appropriate nutrition together with a modified release drug which would give the experience of a chosen combination of foods...

The harsh reality is that Star Trek's replicator is a long way off.

Research for this paper will address the brief history of computer engineered food production; its current developments and their critical reception; and will look to possible futures for this and related food technologies. This research is further informed by over 20 years in interactive multimedia and a deep interest in food cultures.

This paper was presented at the Oxford Symposium on Food & Cookery at St Catherine's College Oxford in July 2013.

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