Cake is a pretty big part of my life; it’s something I’ve done since I was very small and it makes me happy to see a properly baked cake come out of the oven, golden, whistling to itself, smelling like nothing else on earth. It is something that I consider to be a very human activity. Most of recorded history would agree with me, too.
So can a robot make a better cake than a human?
Cakes are made with love, with affection, with human fallibility. They are unpredictable, require observation and testing and are always inconsistent. Any baker will tell you of the time a never-fail recipe has indeed failed and their cake has emerged, sunken and burned around the edges from the oven. Cake batter changes depending on the flour you use, the size of the eggs, the fat content of your butter. Flour can change its protein content based on the time of year it was harvested, which can change the entire structure of your cake; it can become more bready, it can rise more, it can collapse easier. These are all things that require learning, experience, and a careful eye on what your cake batter is doing as you mix.
Programming for all of the variables in a cake mix isn’t easy, but you can reduce the variability. You can only use sugar of a specific type and size, your flour has to have the same protein levels, your eggs are sterilised, cracked and beaten in advance, your butter isn’t butter, it’s a type of oil that has a specific fat/water ratio, your raising agent has to have a specific mix and you have buffers built in to your mix which allow for variation.
Once you’ve reduced the variables then you can build a robot – or production line, as they’re normally called – to make your cake. They will be the same shape, size, taste, texture, with the same amount of filling, and they’ll last on a shelf for weeks, if not months. They will be uniform, consistent, effectively identical, because the mass-production model is all about reducing the variables. And if all you want is to eat the cake then that’s probably ok, although you’re getting the reward without putting in any effort. Just because something is there doesn’t mean that you have to have it, although that doesn’t stop people from buying it anyway.
Here’s a simple experiment; make a victoria sponge, and go & buy one from a shop (I’m not saying which one to buy it from but I’d bet real money that people doing this experiment will buy it from M&S). Take a slice from each. Taste it, blindfold. Pick your favourite. Think about why it is your favourite.
What makes a cake better? If you’re a corporate entity like a supermarket or fast food outlet then “better” means “cost-effective” at the bottom line. This then breaks down into “cheap” and “long lasting” and both of these things affect how a cake comes out. If you’re a bakery with a reputation for quality then you’re probably hand making cakes anyway and will probably only make cakes in smaller batches. Home bakers? You can watch every step of the process. What you care about is the overall quality of the finished article and it’ll rarely last more than a day. Economies of scale are less important, so you can spend time on getting the batter just right, being experimental with your flavourings, keeping an eye on the oven. You don’t care about shelf life or profit margins. You’re doing it because you love cake, or love the people the cake is destined for, or for the sheer joy of creating something, or for another reason that isn’t really measurable.
There’s the deeper philosophy; rather than asking if a cake made by a bot or a human is “better”, why not ask why the cake was made by a bot or a human in the first place? And, given that most bot-made cakes are full of stuff that humans wouldn’t put in their cakes, and bot-made cakes are easily-accessible and so there’s no effort involved in the reward process, when the inevitable rise against the humans comes is the first step to make the humans so morbidly obese that they can’t fight back effectively?
Has that already started?
(originally posted on Culture Vulture, I thought this deserved a reposting here.)