Should This Thing Be Smart? Grill Edition.

Maybe you need a talking $7,000 smart grill to make this Fourth of July historic. Maybe not.

Lynx SmartGrill with "Should This Thing Be Smart?" logo.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Lynx.

In Should This Thing Be Smart?, Justin Peters examines a smart object and tries to determine whether there is any good reason for its existence. Previously on Should This Thing Be Smart?: the $60 smart fork, the $199 smart socks, the $80 coffee mug, the $99 button, the $99 toothbrush, the $99 dog collar, the $1,199 mirror, the $199 bike lock, the $60 microwave, the $130 Christmas lights, the $350 self-lacing sneakers, and the $249 door lock.

Humans have been cooking meats over fire since the very moment when humans became humans. Though we share relatively little in common with our hominid ancestors, the impulse to grill has persisted across the millennia. In other words, cooking out is an activity ripe to be disrupted.

Thus, Silicon Valley has given us the smart grill, which enhances the barbecue experience by pairing it with an app. A company called Lynx manufactures the most expensive entrant in this field, as far as I can tell: a tricked-out intelligent gas grill called the Lynx SmartGrill. The Lynx SmartGrill has been on the market for a few years now, and it “incorporates mobile connectivity, voice recognition, online notification and a seamless user interface to bring grilling into the 21st century,” the product’s website brags. Take that, Cro-Magnon Man!

Independence Day is nearly upon us, which means that the United States is once again firmly in the grips of grilling season. Most of us who plan to cook out this week will do so using old-fashioned dumb grills. Are we living in the past? Should a grill be smart? Let’s find out.

Product: Lynx SmartGrill

Price: $7,119 on WoodlandDirect.com for the 30-inch built-in version.

The case for the smart grill: The Lynx SmartGrill uses science, technology, and an app to improve the precision and consistency of your outdoor grilling sessions. In so doing, it tacitly implies that many of you grillmasters out there need the help. This implication strikes me as largely correct. Whether because of indifference, incompetence, or merely seasonal pyromania, food made on outdoor barbecues is often very bad. For every barbecue savant who deploys secret rubs and proprietary charcoal blends in her quest for gustatory perfection, there are hundreds if not thousands of barbecue idiots who are constitutionally incapable of not turning grilled meats into inedible cinders. Grillmasters? More like grillmonsters, am I right?

The Lynx SmartGrill promises to save these inept charcoal jockeys from themselves. Select your protein or side and the grill’s paired app presents a selection of recipes for your approval. Once you’ve chosen your recipe, the grill heats up to the ideal temperature, while the app offers step-by-step instructions: where to place the food on the grill, precisely when to turn the food, and so on. The app does everything but chew the food for you, and it will probably do that too, if you enter the right cheat code. It is basically the line cook to your celebrity chef, doing all the work while you, the face of the operation, get all the credit. Grillmonster? More like grillmaestro!

The smart grill is a versatile grill. Its cooking area is divided into three separate zones, which can be simultaneously heated to three separate temperatures. This feature is useful if you want to cook three very different items at once: a protein and two sides, perhaps. The optimal temperature for a delectable grilled burger is different than that for a great ear of corn, for instance, and the smart grill helps you cook each to its appropriate level of doneness. The smart grill is made for multitasking.

The smart grill gets smarter over time. It remembers your preferences and tweaks its instructions accordingly. If you consistently remove a steak from the grill a few minutes before the grill suggests you do, perhaps because you like it rare, then the grill will adjust its recipe going forward to reflect that. If you leave your steak on the grill for longer than the grill advises, perhaps because you enjoy inedible cinders, then the grill will adjust to reflect your tastes too, and will probably also give you some good recommendations on brands of ketchup, Mr. President.

The Lynx SmartGrill is a timesaver! It lets you, the putative cook, “set it and forget it” and instead devote your attentions to socializing, and drinking beer, and gossiping about those neighbors whom you didn’t invite to your cookout. The reward for a successful cookout is the friends you made along the way, after all, and the SmartGrill will let you focus on those friends while not worrying about the food.

The SmartGrill is also a talking grill. It will give you audio notifications when your services are required. It will also say stuff like “Please set up your Wi-Fi connection,” and “SmartGrill, at your service,” which is sort of fun. The grill can text you too, if you prefer to relate to your grill on that level. “U up bro? Come cook on me bro. Flip ur ribeye bro,” it will say. (These are not verbatim quotes, but you get the gist of it.) You can talk to the SmartGrill, too—and unlike the rest of the ingrates in your family, the SmartGrill will actually listen. The smart grill is always there to lend an ear.

The case against the smart grill: The smart grill is very, very expensive. Many “smart” objects are pricey, of course, but the smart grill blows past pricey and moves into the realm of the obscene. You can get a serviceable used car for the amount you’d pay for the SmartGrill, and you could use that car all year round, not just in warm weather. If you are especially crafty, you could probably rig a device that would cook food on the hood of the car, thus killing two birds with one stone. But if you try to drive your grill down to the store, not only will you not get anywhere, but your family and neighbors may well start to worry about your mental health. Advantage: car.

The smart grill promotes dependency. There is a difference between reducing opportunities for human error and removing the human element from a process altogether, and the SmartGrill seems to err on the side of the latter. The smart grill is a product for someone who wants to host a cookout but doesn’t want to put any effort whatsoever into learning how to cook. Rich people, in other words. The smart grill will soften the already flaccid hippocampi of the bourgeoisie.

The smart grill feels like it is somewhat antithetical to the barbecue ethos. Few cuisines fetishize the human element as much as outdoor grilling. Stories abound of secret recipes and closely guarded techniques. Grillmasters are the chefs most likely to wear aprons demanding kisses for their culinary efforts, thus implying that their work is especially deserving of erotic praise. In other words, when it comes to grilling, the link between human effort and delectability is clear. By minimizing that link, the smart grill threatens to destroy much of what makes barbecuing actually fun. “Why should I kiss the chef when the grill did all the work?” you will hear if you purchase the smart grill. Alienation of affection will ensue. The smart grill may well destroy your marriage.

As far as I know, the talking grill is not also a wisecracking grill, which will disappoint those of you who like your household appliances to also be adept at insult comedy.

Security concerns: Though this section of the column is usually devoted to concerns over data security, I feel like it’s worth noting first off that an unattended grill is a dangerous grill. With non-smart grills, the cook usually remains in the direct vicinity for the duration of the grill session, and while this can be a pain in the butt, it also makes it less likely that kids or other inattentive souls will stick their hands on the surface and end up badly burned, or that other fiery accidents will ensue. By giving the chef license to stray from and ignore the grill for long stretches of time, the smart grill necessarily ups the risk of inadvertent burns and other accidents. The Lynx SmartGrill accounts for this risk, in part, by shutting down the burner after not receiving any commands for 30 minutes—but a lot can happen in 30 minutes.

That said, smart grills writ large are also subject to the standard data security concerns that you see with most smart products. A malicious hacker—perhaps upset at not having been invited to your cookout—might find ways to take control of your grill and burn your food beyond recognition. Grillmakers might log your favorite recipes and ingredients and use that data to market those products to you. Your data might be bundled with other users’ data and sold to Big Bratwurst. Never forget: When you buy and use a smart device, you are simultaneously the consumer and the product.

Is the smart grill more likely to be used to solve or commit a crime? It is more likely to be used to commit the crime of simultaneously incinerating three different types of evidence at three different temperatures.

Should this thing be smart? This thing should be smart. While undeniably expensive, the smart grill is really no different from any other kitchen implement that purports to help people more efficiently and consistently prepare their food. If you’ve got the money to spare, and if you think the smart grill will ease your life and bring you joy, then have at it. It’s your food and your money, after all.

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.