Thursday, September 07, 2006

Robot wine tasters

Santa Fe New Mexican reports: [edited]

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 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."

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.

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 it is analyzing the chemical composition of the wine or food placed before it, it can also 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.

Some of the mistakes it makes would get a human sommelier fired [or beaten up, ed]. When a reporter's hand was placed against the robot's taste sensor, it was identified as prosciutto. A cameraman was mistaken for bacon.

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."

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