Meet Watson, a most virtual chef

Computer Chef

Milk and Cookie Shots are not the only food items making a splash at the SXSW festival in Austin, Texas. IBM's Watson computer (perhaps best known for being the world's best Jeopardy player) demonstrated its culinary prowess at an event called "Cognitive Cooking." The idea behind this endeavor is to showcase what IBM calls Watson's "computational creativity."

IBM engineers pondered the best way to highlight Watson's creative ability, ultimately deciding to focus on cooking. What better way to connect creativity to computation? After all, that is what chefs do every day: explore how different ingredients will work together by drawing on their knowledge and experience. IBM approached New York's Institute for Culinary Education (ICE), asking it to collaborate on the project. ICE let Watson access its recipe database so the computer could learn about different cuisines, ingredients, and types of dishes. The goal was to have Watson create novel yet great-tasting food.

This might conjure an image of an apron-clad robot busily stirring a pot; but that's not quite how Watson cooks. Rather, Watson suggests novel ingredient pairings and how to prepare the dish while real-life chefs execute the ideas. The idea is that while human chefs are quite limited in how many ingredients they can consider at one time, Watson can filter through quadrillions of combinations based upon the profiles in its database and the chemical properties of the food. Watson does more than just coldly analyze chemistry, however; it attempts to model human perception to find combinations that will be both tasty and surprising. Once Watson recommends a list of ingredients and suggests how to cook them, real-life chefs take over, deciding how much of each ingredient to use and what the final dish will look like.

So, is Watson poised to be the next winner of Top Chef? You can judge for yourself by visiting IBM's Watson Food Truck at SXSW from March 7-11. If you can't make it to Texas, you can try Watson-inspired recipes at home, including Vietnamese Apple Kebab and Caymanian Plaintain Dessert. The meal presented at SXSW on Thursday evening featured a Czech pork belly moussaka, Kenya Brussels sprouts (flavored with cardamom), a Russian beet salad, two Italian roast duck dishes, and an Ecuadorian strawberry dessert with  avocado oil.

IBM says it is working on a Watson cooking app for the general public, but it's not yet available. In the meantime, you can learn more about this project and even vote on what dish Watson should try next. Who knows, perhaps EYB will someday index a Watson cookbook!

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