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IBM's Watson sets the menu at SXSW


March 11, 2014

IBM has put Watson, its cognitive computing system, in control of the menu at a food truck for this week's SXSW festival

IBM has put Watson, its cognitive computing system, in control of the menu at a food truck for this week's SXSW festival

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IBM's Watson supercomputer has been rather busy in recent years. When not triumphing over us inferior humans on Jeopardy, it has been trying its hand at customer service and offering its expertise in clinical diagnosis. The kitchen, however, has been one domain where our mastery has so far gone unmatched. Well, until now that is. IBM has put its cognitive computing system in control of the menu at a food truck feeding attendees at this week's SXSW festival and the appointment has resulted in some particularly imaginative dishes.

For its "Cognitive Cooking" project, IBM has enlisted the services of four prominent chefs to work with Watson, who is consulting a database of tens of thousands of recipes and ingredient combinations to conceive dishes that the regular foodie has probably never thought of.

"If you were to look inside the system that is running in the IBM cloud you would see a system that is trained on 35,000 different recipes, as if it was digesting a giant cookbook," said Steve Abrams, Director of Watson Life at IBM. "From reading that cookbook it has learnt an awful lot about different ingredients that are often used in different cuisines, and the ingredients that are often paired together."

Abram puts the amount of ingredient pairings tested by Watson in the quintillions, that's a whole lot of zeros, 18 to be exact. This process is what takes Watson's exploits into uncharted territory, even for professional chefs.

"The Vietnamese Apple Kebab has some very unusual pairings, for example we have pork, mushrooms and strawberry," said Florian Pinel, chef, scientist and lead architect of the Cognitive Cooking project. "The system doesn't look at ingredients like chefs do, it looks at the chemical composition of the ingredients."

In the case of the Vietnamese Apple Kebab (pictured above), this involved identifying a common flavor compound found in both pork and apple, working out whether combining the two was likely to produce a pleasant sensation, and inventing a recipe with an emphasis on the unusual and the so far untried.

Other innovative recipes conjured up by Watson include coconut-flavored Caribbean Snapper Fish & Chips, Belgian Bacon Pudding, and the Austrian Chocolate Burrito with lean ground beef and two ounces of dark chocolate.

As it stands, Watson still requires a fair bit of guidance. Each day of the festival, people cast their votes via Twitter for the type of dish they would like Watson to serve up, whether it be a pudding, pie or chili con carne. The chefs then entered a set of preferences and Watson spits out a selection of recipes ranked according to their ability to surprise.

While the Cognitive Cooking project appears a somewhat novel use for Watson, it does give an insight into the ground IBM is trying to break in the realm of cognitive, laterally thinking computers. Watson successfully matching cooking ingredients gives some indication of the potential it could hold for industries as diverse as cosmetics, fashion, advertising and music.

If what Watson is dishing up at SXSW this week isn't setting a new benchmark for culinary delight, then it is at the very least providing some food for thought.

You can hear more about the process in the video below.

Source: IBM

About the Author
Nick Lavars Nick was born outside of Melbourne, Australia, with a general curiosity that has drawn him to some distant (and very cold) places. Somewhere between enduring a winter in the Canadian Rockies and trekking through Chilean Patagonia, he graduated from university and pursued a career in journalism. Having worked for publications such as The Santiago Times and The Conversation, he now writes for Gizmag from Melbourne, excited by tech and all forms of innovation, the city's bizarre weather and curried egg sandwiches. All articles by Nick Lavars

Why am I reading SXSW everywhere? Acronyms should be spelled out once per article, and that's all I wanted to know about.

Bob Stuart

Bob, I was wondering the same thing. I found a link that seems to explain what it is. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/South_by_Southwest

I wonder if the next step would be that there is an attachment to the Watson computer that actually prepares and cooks the food?


Nothing can beat my peanut butter banana sandwich with a dab of mayo, unless maybe you add some cucumber slices and a slice of swiss ,,, yummmm!!!

Dartagnon Puissant

When one stops to consider the wide array of fields to which Watson may apply it's talent for massive parallel processing or "thinking" one might become a bit freaked out over the implications. For one this emerging form of computerized processing boarders on imagination. Imagination with the added ingredient of extreme resource. It threatens to assume the roll of most proficient inventor on the planet. It doesn't take much imagination to extrapolate, given time, where that could lead. Should the realm of computer intelligence be among the fields of study it's tasked with considering methods of improvement and advancement, it might very well, sooner rather than later, stumble upon the very breakthrough which triggers mechanized sentience!

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