A head of lettuce, a can of beans, a single potato, and a few stray onions—it looks like mighty slim pickings to you, but factor in a half a dozen pantry staples and Chef Watson can come up with 3,628,800 menu suggestions.
You might remember Watson from TV’s Jeopardy!
In 2011, IBM’s supercomputer made headlines when it trounced the game show’s most formidable human contestants in a million dollar tournament. The current Watson is smaller, faster, and smarter by a factor of 24. Its natural language processing and computational creativity benefit a wide range of industries, running financial markets, improving retail shopping experiences, and diagnosing cancers in hospital oncology centers. And now Watson is coming out with a cookbook.
It’s much more than a gimmick.
The scientists at IBM Research worked with chefs from New York’s Institute of Culinary Education. They created preparations and combinations that the world has never seen, but that still steer clear of wacky. Most recipes are twists and fusions that borrow from a global kitchen of ingredients and techniques like Portuguese Lobster Rolls, Peruvian Chile-Potato Poutine, Creole Shrimp and Lamb Dumplings, Indonesian Rice Chili con Carne, and Vietnamese Pork and Apple Kebabs.
Could the talented chefs at the ICE have come up with these dishes on their own? Perhaps, given enough time for research and experimentation. But human creativity is defined by the limits of personal experience and biases, known and conventional food associations, and the brain’s finite bandwidth. By contrast, Watson is able to instantly sift through vast amounts of culinary data while simultaneously evaluating the potential of an infinite number of ingredients and combinations in a process known as cognitive computing.
Watson was fed an encyclopedic data diet of recipes, food chemistry, molecular compounds, chemoinformatic flavor profiles, hedonic psychophysical taste models, behavioral psychology, cultural preferences, and nutrition. The ICE chefs originated the creation of each recipe by prompting the system and steering it through its algorithms and analytics. They then sifted through thousands of outputs looking for dishes that were appealing, workable in a home kitchen, and contained an element of surprise through new and unique flavor combinations. And finally, the chefs did something that a computer can only simulate—they tasted their creations.
Cognitive Cooking with Chef Watson: Recipes for Innovation from IBM & the Institute of Culinary Education will be released on April 14 and can currently be pre-ordered on Amazon.
You can participate in the Watson project by applying to beta test the Chef Watson app that IBM is developing in conjunction with Bon Appétit.