March 4, 2013 at 2:51 PM ET
On Thursday last week, analysts visiting IBM's Almaden research labs were served a breakfast pastry designed by the IBM's clever software itself, the New York Times reports. After absorbing 20,000 recipes, Watson suggested that chefs cobble together a Spanish-inspired breakfast pastry made from a list that included cocoa, saffron, black pepper, almonds and honey. Possibly following instructions to create a healthy dish, Watson's ingredients list made no mention of butter (a choice Watson's human collaborator seemed to have mixed feelings about).
It's been two years since it defeated humans at Jeopardy, and Watson’s been busy. IBM’s AI system has joined the hunt for better antimalarial drugs, helped study cancer, joined Citigroup to help improve banking, gone to medical school at Cleveland Clinic, and is doing a stint in college at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. And now Watson is heading to the kitchen.
Watson’s Spanish pastry experiment is just a small slice of IBM’s research into food of the future. The company anticipates that taste and smell will be two senses that technology will help augment in the next five years. IBM is collaborating with the Institute of Culinary Education to train Watson into a computer that understands food and flavors at a molecular level, creating recipes beyond the reach of the best trained chefs. Even though Chef Watson won't be able to do a taste test on anything it cooks up, "it will use algorithms to determine the precise chemical structure of food and why people like it," an IBM spokesperson explained to NBC News.
You don't need to be Julia Child to know that sugar and butter will taste delicious together, but as to why we enjoy eating cupcakes or cake batter — that's a riddle the hoitiest-toitiest dessert chef you know can't crack. And that's where Watson comes in. The software will be fed information about the precise chemical structure of chemicals in food along with scientific data and models about how the tongue and brain perceive taste. The goal in the end is to create tasty food that is also healthy, from the molecule up. The idea is that a better understanding of the mechanism of taste perception will lead to healthier recipes that taste good.
“The best recipes will start with the right molecules,” Lav Varshey, a researcher at IBM explained in a video the company published recently. “Diabetics can’t eat sugar, but in the future we may be able to model what satisfies their sweet tooth, and develop flavors and recipes that are healthy for them."
IBM's plan is to let Watson loose on big challenges facing the food industry, whether it's obesity, diabetes or hunger, to discover new ways in which we can eat happily and eat healthy. It’s reasonable to anticipate that Watson will craft recipes that are traditionally tasty but perhaps more nutritious, in ways that chefs haven't yet thought of.
What's next is anybody's guess, but we’re waiting for IBM to share meatier details about Watson's cooking skills.