Kobe beef / soruce: Wikipedia

Regarding Artificial Meat

Speculative Cowbot Fiction

Sean McCullough
4 min readOct 10, 2013


A Premise

Artificial meat is on the horizon of food products available to the mass market. Current in-vitro methods basically grow artificial meat in petri dishes, but meat is muscle and needs to be exercised in order to produce meat-like texture. This is true whether the meat is from an actual animal, or grown in a lab. Consumers who are used to natural meat will prefer artificial meat that has the same texture and cuts as natural meat. Therefore, instead of just floating around in vats, suppose that artificial meat should be grafted to and grown on robotic animal skeletons. These skeletons would move around and apply the same strains and stresses that real animals would apply to muscle tissue, and thereby produce the same texture.

The end product would taste and feel just like natural meat, and would be available in the exact same cuts (perhaps minus the bone-in varieties). It’s just grown on robots instead of cows.

Now imagine factories with row after row of vaguely cow-shaped robots, covered in raw artificial meat, walking in place on treadmills. Something like Boston Dynamics’ WildCat, but covered in meat.

Consider non-military uses for robots such as this.

From the Premise, a Story

Okay let’s build a story around this premise. Our protagonist lives in a transitional period straddling the pre- and post- cowbot eras. He used to massage natural Kobe beef cows for a living, but now he massages cowbots instead. For the time being, he’s still got his job at a factory that hasn’t upgraded to the new models yet, but many competing factories have upgraded to new Kobe cowbots that can automatically massage the meat themselves. He is justifiably afraid of losing his job.

There’s tension between him and his children because they think he’s a fading anachronism. He wants them to understand the value of the tradition, and that only humans can create meaning in this process — the robotic Kobe is all empty ceremony. He won’t even serve it in his own house.

One day at the factory, he takes a regularly scheduled break from his cowbot-massaging work. He sits in one of those robotic massage chairs you sometimes see at airports. He falls asleep and dreams about preparing a natural steak dinner for his family.

Source: Wikipedia user Chensiyuan

While he’s cutting one of the steaks in his dream, he accidentally slices his through his thumb, severing it from his hand completely. Instead of blood and bone though, he sees oil, wire, spinning metal rods and gears protruding from his severed joint. He lifts his hand up closer to his face to get a better look, and the spinning metal parts spray oil all over his face and shirt.

Alarm sirens at the meat factory wake him up from this dream. One of the cowbots has malfunctioned and broken free from its suspension harness. It clumsily stumbles off the treadmill and meanders across the factory floor. Our protagonist leaps up from the massage chair to join his coworkers wrestling the cowbot to the ground. It lay sideways, meat-covered robot legs still kicking. He hits the cowbot’s emergency shutoff switch and it gradually slows down to a complete stop.

Imagine western rodeo music played on an electronic koto during this scene.

The next morning at the meat factory machine shop, our protagonist dives into the task of fixing the malfunctioning cowbot. He begins by chopping away all of the meat that he can in order to access the central gearbox. This gearbox is the component that coordinates the motion of the cowbot’s various limbs. He pushes his hand deep into unseen reaches of this set of motionless parts, in tactile search of a diagnostic recording cartridge that contains information about what went wrong the day before. He believes he has found the cartridge, and twists it in an attempt to release it, but he has actually found a loose fuse. Twisting it re-completes a circuit allowing a capacitor to discharge and send the gearbox into brief, violent motion, catching and severing his thumb in the process.



Sean McCullough

Software Engineer. Ex-Austinite living in San Francisco. I work for Google, but views expressed here are my own.