IBM's Watson supercomputer has been rather busy in recent years. When not triumphing over us inferior humans on Jeopardy, it has been trying its hand at customer service and offering its expertise in clinical diagnosis. The kitchen, however, has been one domain where our mastery has so far gone unmatched. Well, until now that is. IBM has put its cognitive computing system in control of the menu at a food truck feeding attendees at this week's SXSW festival and the appointment has resulted in some particularly imaginative dishes.
For its "Cognitive Cooking" project, IBM has enlisted the services of four prominent chefs to work with Watson, who is consulting a database of tens of thousands of recipes and ingredient combinations to conceive dishes that the regular foodie has probably never thought of.
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"If you were to look inside the system that is running in the IBM cloud you would see a system that is trained on 35,000 different recipes, as if it was digesting a giant cookbook," said Steve Abrams, Director of Watson Life at IBM. "From reading that cookbook it has learnt an awful lot about different ingredients that are often used in different cuisines, and the ingredients that are often paired together."
Abram puts the amount of ingredient pairings tested by Watson in the quintillions, that's a whole lot of zeros, 18 to be exact. This process is what takes Watson's exploits into uncharted territory, even for professional chefs.
"The Vietnamese Apple Kebab has some very unusual pairings, for example we have pork, mushrooms and strawberry," said Florian Pinel, chef, scientist and lead architect of the Cognitive Cooking project. "The system doesn't look at ingredients like chefs do, it looks at the chemical composition of the ingredients."
In the case of the Vietnamese Apple Kebab (pictured above), this involved identifying a common flavor compound found in both pork and apple, working out whether combining the two was likely to produce a pleasant sensation, and inventing a recipe with an emphasis on the unusual and the so far untried.
Other innovative recipes conjured up by Watson include coconut-flavored Caribbean Snapper Fish & Chips, Belgian Bacon Pudding, and the Austrian Chocolate Burrito with lean ground beef and two ounces of dark chocolate.
As it stands, Watson still requires a fair bit of guidance. Each day of the festival, people cast their votes via Twitter for the type of dish they would like Watson to serve up, whether it be a pudding, pie or chili con carne. The chefs then entered a set of preferences and Watson spits out a selection of recipes ranked according to their ability to surprise.
While the Cognitive Cooking project appears a somewhat novel use for Watson, it does give an insight into the ground IBM is trying to break in the realm of cognitive, laterally thinking computers. Watson successfully matching cooking ingredients gives some indication of the potential it could hold for industries as diverse as cosmetics, fashion, advertising and music.
If what Watson is dishing up at SXSW this week isn't setting a new benchmark for culinary delight, then it is at the very least providing some food for thought.
You can hear more about the process in the video below.