‘Maserati of toaster ovens’ as metaphor for Silicon Valley

Dec. 15, 2016

Still looking for a holiday gift? You might choose the $1,500 AI-enabled Wi-Fi-equipped June oven. I haven’t tried out this oven, but Geoffrey A. Fowler at The Wall Street Journal has. The June, which he describes as a “robotic Mrs. Cleaver” and the “Maserati of toaster ovens,” is good at cooking salmon, but less good at cooking bacon, he writes.

The oven has a camera that can identify dishes and stream video to your smartphone. A touchscreen lets you choose recipes. The oven includes carbon-fiber coils and fans to distribute heat evenly. Sensors monitor oven temperature, but you need to insert the oven’s thermometer into your food before the oven begins cooking. Scales built into the oven’s feet measure how much food you’re cooking. If your food must be flipped during the cooking process, you’ll have to do that yourself.

Fowler says the June has room for improvement: it collects more data than it uses, it doesn’t monitor weight changes to detect water loss during cooking, it doesn’t monitor changes in color and shape to determine doneness, and it doesn’t solicit your feedback on the quality of the meal. “You already rate your Uber driver,” he writes, “why not your lamb chops?”

He reports, “The June’s makers say that’s all in the works.”

To me, the Wi-Fi-enabled cooking thermometer seems like the best feature, and the sensors and fans that can maintain a uniform temperature throughout the oven would be helpful as well. Neither has much to do with AI, though, which seems to be aimed at recognizing the food (I already know what the food is) and storing and navigating lots of recipes and cooking times.

Mark Wilson at Fast Design quotes June cofounder and Apple alum Matt Van Horn as saying, “We take very hard technologies, AI, deep learning, and lots of sensors, and we apply that to creating a well thought through, simple interface that just makes your life better.”

But Wilson seems unimpressed. He describes June’s salmon-cooking ability as “…a metaphor for Silicon Valley itself. Automated yet distracting. Boastful yet mediocre. Confident yet wrong. Most of all, the June is a product built less for you, the user, and more for its own ever-impending perfection as a platform.” Products like June, he suggests, eliminate self-education and rob us of the soft skills we gain over time. He adds that “…even in the best-case scenarios of machine learning, we all have individual tastes. And what averages out across millions of people may end up tasting pretty…average.”

But Fowler seems more hopeful about June’s possible perfection as a platform. He says June doesn’t need to solve all its problems at once. “The June’s biggest leap was getting a dumb oven onto the internet,” he writes. Now that it’s here, it’s worth seeing how it grows.”

Read Fowler’s complete review here.

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