Not content to rest on its laurels as Jeopardy!’s all-time champion, IBM’s artificial-intelligence computer system, Watson, has now donned a chef’s hat, showing off its culinary chops in a recently unveiled project called “Cognitive Cooking.”
It’s all part of an effort to broaden the horizons of computing to incorporate that most unique of human qualities — creativity — which has long eluded technological reach. Tapping into a database of more than 35,000 recipes stored in the IBM “cloud,” Watson sniffs out flavor profiles and chemical compounds with a nose for novel combinations, in pairings that number in the quintillions (that’s 18 zeros).
The system searches for the most interesting gastronomic matches by ingredient, cuisine, and dish type, resulting in such unorthodox creations as “Baltic Apple Pie” (with a topping of pork tenderloin, left) and a “Belgian Bacon Pudding” that mixes bacon and figs along with egg yolks and buttermilk (and a pinch of cumin). Other confections whipped up so far: a “Caymanian Plantain Dessert,” “Peruvian Potato Poutine,” and an “Austrian Chocolate Burrito” (ground beef alongside dark chocolate and Edam cheese).
The public got its first sampling at an IBM Watson Food Truck in Austin, Texas last month. Visitors at the city’s SXSW Festival tweeted their choices for favorite dishes, as Watson spewed out recipes ranked by their ability to surprise. For the “Vietnamese Apple Kebab,” it identified a common flavor compound found in both pork and apple. Add curry, mushrooms, and strawberries, and any traditional notion of shish-kebab is turned upside down.
Watson’s human counterparts will admit that in some ways they can’t compete. James Briscione, one of the chefs from the Institute of Culinary Education (ICE) who is working with IBM on the Cognitive Cooking venture, told NBC News: “This is stringing together five or six ingredients at a time that are all matched based on the flavor compounds that they share. That’s something that’s way beyond my ability as a chef.”
IBM has even loftier goals for the project, seeing possibilities for global impact in such areas as obesity and malnutrition. The thinking is that by using computational creativity technologies to analyze chemical compounds and ingredients, the food-service industry can avail itself of new recipes and combinations that will be both healthier and more efficient to produce.
But for now, Watson, how about a taste of the “Caribbean Snapper Fish & Chips”? (Non-fried, of course.)