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Blackberry-Cherry Cobbler, to be served with Honey Whipped Cream (IBM)
Blackberry-Cherry Cobbler, to be served with Honey Whipped Cream (IBM)

IBM supercomputer gets creative in the kitchen Add to ...

IBM needed to solve a marketing challenge: Make computing seem more creative. So it made a berry cobbler.

That’s one of the first recipes created in a new partnership with Bon Appétit magazine. Starting this week, the company’s supercomputer – Watson, of Jeopardy! fame – is combing through quintillions of possible flavour combinations to suggest recipes to the magazine’s test kitchen chefs.

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Adding marjoram to berry cobbler is one example of how the magazine hopes to come up with surprising pairings and new ideas to suggest to its readership of at-home chefs. And it is another step in IBM’s charm offensive.

In 2011, Watson famously beat Jeopardy! champions Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter in a two-episode contest on the show. That demonstrated the brain power of the “cognitive computing” system, but when it came to demonstrating creativity, IBM looked to the food scene.

At the South By Southwest festival in Austin, Tex., this year, IBM had Watson run a food truck in partnership with the New York-based Institute of Culinary Education (ICE). It was a marketing project in a festival crowded with next-big-thing creativity. People at the festival could ask the food truck to make them a dish on Twitter, then a vote was held to see which recipes should get the Watson treatment.

The burrito was a crowd favourite; and using Watson’s suggestions for flavour pairings, the ICE chefs came up with an Austrian chocolate burrito with orange, apricot, cinnamon and edamame. For pudding, they made a Belgian pudding with bacon, buttermilk, porcini mushrooms, dried figs, raisins, honey and walnuts. At one point, a Canadian launched a campaign to persuade them to make poutine. Watson helped come up with a Peruvian potato poutine.

“When we say things like ‘cognitive systems,’… it’s kind of abstract,” said the director of IBM Watson, Steve Abrams. “But when you’re standing outside a food truck and I hand you an Austrian chocolate burrito and explain that a professional chef used a computer to help them come up with this, or I give you an application that helps you come up with a barbecued ribs recipe that includes oyster sauce and spicy mustard, it’s a little bit more concrete.”

Bon Appétit online editor Matt Gross saw the stories out of Texas, and e-mailed IBM suggesting that they work together.

Since then, Watson has been trained in the magazine’s cooking sensibilities by absorbing a database of 9,000 recipes.

“It’s looked at everything in our database, and sussed out the connection between ingredients and cooking approaches that we intuitively understand, but it understands at a much more fundamental level,” Gross said. “It can put things together that … we haven’t thought of yet. Things that we know, but that we didn’t know we knew. That is exactly the kind of spur to creativity that you want.”

The black box that appeared on Jeopardy! never came to the kitchen. Since Watson is hosted in the cloud, Bon Appétit simply used its own computers to tap into it. Watson does not simply mash together ingredients: It has learned about the science of cooking. It knows about flavour compounds and hedonic psychophysics – essentially, the science of what people find pleasant and unpleasant in those flavour compounds.

IBM is hoping these recipes will illustrate the kind of problem solving it could do for other clients in industries such as health care and financial services. And it has already drawn interest from prospective clients in retail grocery and quick-service restaurants.

Stories on Bon Appétits website certainly won’t hurt in marketing to food service clients; but IBM did not pay for placement, Gross said. The collaboration will continue with future recipes.

The magazine is also testing an app it has developed with IBM, which will be available to a small group of avid at-home cooks in beta form this summer. The Chef Watson with Bon Appétit technology will help those cooks come up with recipes the same way the computer has done with the magazine, and will be rolled out to a wider audience in the coming months, Abrams said.

But what of the ego hit to chefs who have toiled in kitchens for years to learn their craft, and who value the human creativity that is the soul of cooking?

“When you tell anyone that a computer is going to do their job for them, they get a little apprehensive,” Gross said. “Everyone saw that it was not an initiative to replace chefs in the kitchen. It was a spur to creativity to help you look at things you didn’t know you knew. … Our chefs take this raw material that Watson gives them and figure out how to mould that in a way that works.”

IBM is marketing Watson the same way, Abrams said.

“We talk about health care and the role Watson can play helping doctors come up with new treatment plans, that’s always going to be a partnership between the computer and the human being – a doctor, a chef, a financial analyst. The final authority is going to be the human.”

Follow on Twitter: @susinsky

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