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Not so long ago, the dishwasher was heralded as a revolutionary new machine that would free up women to do more important things, like fold laundry. Now troops of so-called 'smart' appliances are infiltrating the kitchen with emancipation on their drives. The smarter machines become, of course, the dumber we get to be! All that's left to do is masticate and digest.
Consider the Screenfridgean intelligent icebox that can buy groceries online, send e-mails to Emeril, and broadcast Regis and Kathy Lee. Though yet to be scheduled for release, it was previewed this year by Electrolux, a Swedish company that has been producing refrigerators since the 1920s. The Screenfridge comes with a touch-controlled PC embedded right in the front door, as well as an audiovisual system that, among other things, can provide security surveillance of your entire home. Freeze!
The big bonus, Electrolux promises, will be a specially designed digital "reader," which scans bar codes on food items inside the fridge. This enables the machine to automatically do stuff like monitor expiration dates ("The mango Yoplait will self-destruct in five minutes!") or alert you when designated supplies are running low ("Olive loaf! Olive loaf! Olive loaf!"). If you add up all that time you spend surreptitiously sniffing the milk, the Screenfridge will save you minutes.
A similar wisdom is behind the Intelligent Microwave, a research project being engineered by Cook College/Rutgers University with the support of Samsung Electronics. Like the Screenfridge, the I-crowave relies on a bar code technology. On-the-fly cooks simply scan the label on, say, a box of frozen chicken à la king, and voilà, the CPU automatically sets to nuke the meal to perfection. "The intelligent microwave will completely transform the way people prepare food in the 21st century," hypes Dennis Joyner, Samsung's marketing manager for microwave ovens and room air conditioners. (Sure, it sounds like a bright idea now, but what happens when some punk bar-codes a cat?)
Less risky, perhaps, is the Advantage 2000, a kind of multimedia boom box for the countertop, expected to debut early next year. It's the latest infomercial-ready product from Bob Lamson, the ubiquitous barker behind the Juiceman and the Breadman. The "A2K," as it's cheekily nicknamed, combines a TV monitor and CD player with a stripped-down, non-Windows PC appliance, capable of handling Web surfing and e-mail. And it's got fashion sense, available as either a black TV monitor or a sleek 12-inch flip-down LCD panel that hooks up right under your cabinets. The device is also designed to be a "network manager" for all the data that will eventually flow between kitchen appliances. Wonder how the Screenfridge will feel about that.
The A2K, however, is not the first product to try to digitally organize the snarl of dining data. Brother created one of the first electronic recipe organizers with the Kitchen Assistant. Less a PC than a PDA, this $300 machine stores and prints all your recipes for easy access through specially designed memory cards. It also sports what it calls a "reverse recipe function," which lets you type in a couple of ingredients, then press enter to get some suggestions for what to cook. "Let's say you look in the fridge and see some mushrooms starting to go bad," explains Joanna Cumberland, president of the product's marketing agency. "The Kitchen Assistant tells you what to do." (Throw them out?)
Sometimes the kitchen science is less gadget-oriented, though endearingly bizarre. A cooking surface now available called Cybernox ("cyber" prefix alert) is alleged to be the most indestructible surface ever. The impervious alloy coating, fused into a stainless steel pan, can resist temperatures up to 1800 degrees. Invented by a French company called Sitram, it was originally used on the nose cone of a rocket. Imagine the nerve it took to fry an egg on that.
Such innovations have been a long time coming. Only a couple hundred years ago, the first generation of high-tech refrigerators was rolling into Britain. But the luxury proved dangerous. Since the machines were filled with an ether-based cooling system, they were prone to minor inconveniences, like exploding in people's faces. Thankfully, though, soon all we'll have to worry about in the kitchen is spam.