Post by Maanvi Singh, The Salt at NPR Food (2/5/14)
If beer is the new wine, robots are the new beer snobs. Well, sort of.
Researchers in Barcelona have developed an electronic tongue that really knows the difference between a pilsner, a lager and a bock.
For now, it looks less like a slick, futuristic robot and more like a big clump of sensors. It’s still a prototype, but its creators say it could one day replace human taste-testers.
And in a study published in the journal Food Chemistry, the researchers found that the robo taste-tester can distinguish among different types of beer with 82 percent accuracy.
Manel del Valle, one of the study’s authors and a roboticist at the Autonomous University of Barcelona, says food and beverage manufacturers could use the technology for quality control.
“The food industry needs to test lots of their products — and this is usually done by an expert,” del Valle tells The Salt. “But if you transfer this expertise to a robot, you can produce at night, you can produce on the weekends.” And manufacturers wouldn’t have to worry about having a taste-tester on hand at all times.
So it seems these robo beer buffs are more likely to be sampling Bud Lights someday than craft brews.
The electronic tongue works by using its array of sensors to identify the chemical components in a solution, del Valle says. It then cross-checks what it finds with what it already knows about different beers.
The robot is best at discerning tastes it has already been trained to look for. For the purposes of their study, del Valle says, the researchers taught the tongue how to distinguish among five distinct types of beers. So when they had it taste a shandy — a drink that is traditionally a blend of beer and lemonade, ginger ale or citrus soda — the electronic tongue knew that something was different.
Del Valle says the next step is to fine-tune their data processing tools so the tongue can taste with even more accuracy.
For now, del Valle says he and his colleagues are tailoring their creation to the beverage industry, but the robots could be tweaked to serve as taste-testers for pharmaceutical companies and drug manufacturers as well. He’s also working with forensic scientists, using the robot to test for things like gunshot residue.
But personally, we’re most looking forward to having robot drinking buddies.
Copyright 2014 NPR.