Watson, a cognitive computing system that can learn and process natural human language, has been one of IBM’s most exciting projects of the last decade. Over the past few years, Watson has learned a variety of tasks, from defeating contestants on “Jeopardy” to diagnosing life-threatening diseases. Now the cloud-based system is making its first foray into an industry we can all enjoy: food.
IBM calls it “cognitive cooking,” a collaboration with New York’s Institute of Culinary Education that uses data to create the best-tasting food possible.
IBM engineers carefully examined flavour compounds in thousands of ingredients, going down to the molecular level to measure the pleasantness of each. Then, using nutritional data from the FDA, they had the chefs at ICE try out the combinations Watson had determined would make for a delicious meal.
When you consider how many ingredients there are out there, all of which can be prepared in a variety of ways, it’s obvious why a computer like Watson is best suited for the job. According to IBM, the possibilities for combinations of flavours and ingredients number in the quintillions, far more than a human could possibly try out for themselves.
“We wanted to see how we could push the boundaries of cognitive computing and if computers could be creative. We created an application that allows users to create a new recipe that’s never been seen before and hopefully tastes good,” IBM engineer Florian Pinel said to Business Insider.
“We wanted to focus on food because it’s easy to gather data on and it’s something everyone cares about.”
Using the flavour combinations generated by Watson, IBM’s cognitive cooking team created a database of 30,000 recipes with ingredient combinations they say are scientifically determined to have a pleasant taste.
“Part of it is that subjectivity — if you don’t like Brussels sprouts maybe we can’t make you like them no matter how much we try with the computer,” Pinel said. “But there is that common pleasantness measurement that was identified by some studies and that was universal. Watson focuses on the side behind the universal component.”
Here’s a look at what that recipe-generating software looks like. Users can select from a list of cuisines and dishes that contain ingredients selected by Watson.
IBM premiered Watson’s cooking skills with a food truck at SXSW back in March. Chefs from ICE prepared dishes, like Portuguese lobster rolls and Peruvian potato poutine, that contained Watson-generated ingredient combinations and were chosen by tweeted votes from the public.
The cognitive cooking team then sent some lucky journalists the Bengali Butternut BBQ Sauce, a golden, syrupy sauce created by Watson and the ICE chefs. It’s a versatile sauce that can be enjoyed hot or cold, but the chefs recommend serving it on pork ribs or grilled chicken.
We tried it as a dipping sauce with chicken tenders and were surprised by how delicious it really was. It has a tangy, spicy flavour that’s most likely a result of the white wine and vinegar used. Interestingly enough, the recipe generated by Watson’s software uses only natural ingredients, and the sauce lacks that overpowering smoky taste that more traditional BBQ sauces have.
Pinel says that the BBQ sauce is just the beginning of what’s in store from IBM’s cognitive cooking team.
“This is just a teaser to give people a taste of cognitive computing,” he said. “I don’t think that IBM is going to start selling BBQ sauce, but this is an active project, and there’s development happening.”
Those developments could be really useful for chefs in the future.
“We can see, for example, what further compounds are shared by what ingredients, which is an insight chefs don’t have from their own ingredients. You know, they didn’t necessarily take a chemistry class before they started cooking, so that’s a new insight for them that they really like,” Pinel said. “A future insight could be what those flavour compounds smell like, so we could predict the smell of the whole dish.”
IBM only made a few batches of the BBQ sauce, but they posted the complete recipe on their blog. If you want to try whipping up a batch of the BBQ sauce, here’s the recipe:
Bengali Butternut BBQ Sauce
Approximate Yield: 550g
300g butternut squash, diced
200g white wine
100g rice vinegar
50g butter, unsalted
5g tamarind concentrate
10g chilli paste (Sriracha)
4g soy sauce
50g dates, pitted and chopped
2g Thai chilli
3g mustard seed
3g turmeric, fresh, thinly sliced
0.4g cardamom, ground
5g coriander leaves
2g Meyer lemon zest, grated
5g salt, to taste
10g Meyer lemon juice
1. Gently sweat the squash in the butter over medium low heat until softened, approximately 5-10 minutes.
2. Add the vinegar, tamarind, water, wine, chilli paste, and soy; bring to a simmer and reduce heat to low. Add the dates, chilli, mustard seed, turmeric, and cardamom. Continue to simmer and reduce to roughly 250g, for about 20 minutes.
3. Remove from heat; add the coriander leaves and lemon zest. Blend to a very smooth consistency and cool.
4. Season the mixture with salt, lemon juice, and molasses. Chill.