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Smart appliances slow to pick up Samsung's recipe for recovery

As memory chips and smartphones slump, kitchen robo-assistant still years away

The goal for the AI-powered Bot Chef is to prepare a dish just as a human does, from cutting ingredients and sauteing on a stovetop to adjusting seasonings. (Photo courtesy of Samsung)

SEOUL -- Samsung Electronics seeks to develop new cash cows as sales of memory chips and smartphones weaken, but development of AI-enhanced appliances has not progressed as expected, with robotic kitchen assistants and smart-farming refrigerators still in the pipeline.

The South Korean electronics giant launched the new operation two years ago, quietly working on the products at a research and development center in the U.S. At a test kitchen inside the center, a robotic arm extends out from the bottom of a cabinet over the counter. It grabs a seasoning shaker, glides over the electric stove and sprinkles the seasoning over ingredients in a skillet.

The goal for the artificial-intelligence-powered Bot Chef is to prepare a dish when programmed with a recipe, just as a human does: Cut ingredients with a knife and saute them in a skillet or simmer them in a pot, adding seasonings.

The robot is learning and mimicking human moves via sensors and other technologies. To hone its skills, Samsung is tapping know-how developed in memory chip production for identifying the causes of defects and addressing them.

The Bot Chef is far from perfect. Sprinkling just the right amount of seasonings to the diner's liking or slicing ingredients with unique textures -- like konnyaku, which has an elastic consistency -- that require subtle pressure when cutting remains challenging. Samsung says it does not know when the device will hit the market. An appliance industry analyst in South Korea says that a commercial product will not be ready for at least three years.

The R&D center is also home to efforts to develop a refrigerator equipped with mini hydroponic farms. The Chef Garden can grow vegetables with nutrient-containing water and light, tapping an AI platform to adjust water, light, temperature and moisture to create an optimal growing environment.

Growing vegetables without pesticides on balconies is popular among city dwellers in South Korea. Samsung sees home gardening also striking a chord elsewhere.

But simply building AI into home appliances is no longer enough to gain an edge. Appliance and device makers can now embed Google and Amazon.com smart-speaker technology into their own offerings at low cost. Any manufacturer can easily make devices with Alexa tech, for example.

Samsung's consumer electronics segment, which includes appliances, generates less than 5% of the operating profit of the semiconductor business and about a fifth the black ink of the segment that includes smartphones. Even with the company prioritizing AI, the development pipeline's potential for tangible contributions to earnings remains difficult to gauge.

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