You’ve heard of Watson, right?
IBM’s cognitive (or sometimes called artificially intelligent) computing system made headlines in 2011 when it handedly defeated former Jeopardy champions at their own game, and at South by Southwest this week, the folks at IBM are showing off Watson’s latest trick: Cognitive Cooking.
On Thursday night, IBM hosted a dinner for about two dozen South by Southwest attendees to show off this new technology, which according to IBM officials, is the most accessible application yet for mega computer whose technology is also being applied in hospitals and retail outlets.
But is it just a trick? Can a computer really replace a human mind in the kitchen?
I wasn’t the only skeptic at the dinner, which took place at Mettle the night before SXSW officially kicked off. When IBM approached the Institute of Culinary Education two years ago about partnering on the project, the chefs and staff were equally as hesitant to jump on board, says Carly DeFilippo, social media and content manager at ICE in New York City.
But the software company, which has offices in Austin, knew that Watson’s food applications wouldn’t be successful without reputable chefs helping guide the development and, ultimately, executing the final product. IBM persuaded ICE to jump on board, and this week, they are showing off the technology in a food truck parked at Red River and East Fourth Streets, outside the Austin Convention Center.
Each day, the truck will serve a different dish from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. based on one of Watson’s generated ingredients lists, which attendees can vote on using the #IBMfoodtruck hashtag. (On Friday, they were serving a Vietnamese Apple Kebab.)
Right now, Watson can’t spit out a recipe based on whatever criteria a user submits. What it can generate is a list of ingredients and a rating on how pleasant, surprising and well-paired those ingredients would be together, which means it’s up to cooks to figure out how best to combine those flavors in a palate-pleasing way.
"Every one of these outputs is a puzzle, and there’s no one right answer to that puzzle," said ICE chef James Briscione, who was one of two visiting chefs who prepared Thursday’s meal. "It’s a new point to start from."
ICE’s Michael Laiskonis, the former pastry chef at Le Bernardin in New York, was also in Austin to cook at Mettle for the dinner. For him, this application of Watson’s technology has reinvigorated his love of research and development. "It creates a new challenge and gives you that sense of discovery," he said.
Using Watson to come up with the base ingredients for each course, the chefs served a meal of Czech Pork Belly Moussaka with dill, red bell pepper and cottage cheese, Kenyan Brussels Sprouts spiced with cardamom on a sweet potato puree, Russian Beet Salad paired with prunes and cornichons, and two takes on Italian duck, each based on the same list of ingredients, which included sage, fennel and cinnamon.
Even the cocktail and dessert were Watson inspired, though I must say the bright yellow Ivorian Bourbon Punch, made with turmeric, bourbon, banana, lemon juice, Triple Sec, vanilla, honey, wasn’t nearly as good as the plain jane Moscow Mule they also served.
After Thursday’s dinner, IBM developer (and trained chef) Florian Pinel demonstrated how the process works on a large screen. Guests suggested an ingredient (bacon — boring, yes), cuisine (Kentucky and Australian — specific and weird, I know) and kind of dish (gumbo).
Watson, scanning its vast database of existing recipes, knew that a gumbo would have about four vegetables, three spices, one oil, one cereal and two meats, and then it suggested dozens of lists of possible ingredient combinations that fit those parameters to choose from. In the future, IBM plans to release a more home cook-friendly version of this technology, but for now, it’s simply an artificially intelligent, and yes, creative, source for inspiration, not a robot that can come up with a quintillion recipes or prepare those recipes for you.
"It’s fun to think about what this means for the future of food," she says. "We push our students to be creative and innovative and to help them find their culinary voice, so for us, this expands beyond novelty."
You can find out more about the truck and the technology at ibm.com/cognitivecooking.