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Cognitive computing: when our machines decide to become chefs

Published on by the SIAL Paris team - updated on

Molecular gastronomy, A.I. & robotics, are the current fetish of avant-garde chefs. In a scenario that resembles science fiction, they are raising the idea of a future style of cuisine that is derived entirely from engineering. In the recipes designed by Chef Watson, IBM’s supercomputer, the only human element is the name in its signature. Far from a simple binary view of the world – those who are for or against global automation – SIAL is going to have another look at what these cognitive computer specialists, such as IBM’s Chef Watson, are proposing. Explanations

From the science of calculation to designing menus

In Austin Texas, during the South by Southwest Festival in 2014, IBM’s food truck announced the arrival of its super computer, Chef Watson, which uses the science of data collection and processing to find new recipes.

Would we be delighted to learn that coffee is made up of 700 odor compounds (science for aromas), or even to try Austrian chocolate burritos or Peruvian Poutine?

Future gastronomic critics are likely to write about molecular formulas, created from coded odors or characterized by their “negative taste attributes”! Computer speak is set to become part of the language of our menus.

Watson can look at thousands of ingredients and test trillions of flavor combinations”, explained the infographic which accompanied the restaurant truck.

The most surprising thing for a machine is that the new recipe ideas will be evaluated using “hedonistic psychophysical principles which are based on human likes and dislikes”.

Will it also be influenced by Leibniz’s philosophy which says, “seasoning is reasoning”?  Knowing how to introduce unity into food diversity thanks to the phenomenon of apperception?

I’m beginning to understand the use of the neologism “cognitive computing” as applied to how Chef Watson works.

So, the art of combining flavors will become something disconnected from the world of sensations, or at least the non-objective world, and will become part of the world of hard science, where the pleasures of the palette are dictated by computer logic.

To do this, Watson wants to create a sort of tree of knowledge of new recipes that can help humans with their creative efforts. In fact, human beings have limits to their calculation power that the machine simply doesn’t have.

“A chef combines flavors using two or three ingredients at a time, IBM explains, while Chef Watson can use thousands of ingredients to make trillions of combinations”

What’s more, its computing power means it can look at and understand 100,000 recipe books in a second. 

IBM, future arbiter of our taste buds? 

So, happy is he who, like the solitary gourmet, can plunge into the technical details of aromas like a digital designer?

Well, if you are an advocate of the “quantified-self” then definitely!

The latter can put the algorithm designed by Lada Adamic, a computer researcher at Michigan University, to the test. With it they can prepare low calorie recipes building on comments by internet users who substitute foods to adapt their meals to their dietary requirements. Enthusiasts declare that:

The logic of the taste must come first, and for that we don’t prefer imbalance, which is vaguer and more fluid in cooking.

Others, who are perhaps more “solitary gourmets”, may be more receptive to the words of the ethnologist, Claude Lévi-Strauss, in his “Short treatise on culinary ethnology” on The Origin of Table Manners where we learn that cooking is, above all, “cultural”:

“The cuisine of a society is a language through which it subconsciously transmits its structure.”

Gastronomic otherness, the product of luck, the sensory expression of a chef’s gestures - culinary art is not just the result of mathematical additions and subtractions.

In the world merely divided between technophobes and technophiles? Not entirely, if you think, for example, of the different feedback on such things as foodpairing, the theory which uses chemical analysis of flavors to determine which foods associate, or subtractive cuisine, which seeks to marry contrasting aromas. Machines also have their limits, not least the human biases of their designers. Steve Abrams, in charge of the program at IBM, recalled:

“IBM’s Watson is only a tool to help you create or decide”

So, headlining on the future victory of a Chef Watson against an Alain Ducasse, in reference to the chess battle between Deep Blue and Garry Kasparov (1997), or more recently to AlphaGo against Fan Hui in a game of Go. It would be at best a game of semantics and at worst the recurrent nightmare of a modern Prometheus giving birth to Frankenstein’s monster!