IBM’s AI computer has come up with some pretty incredible food pairings

Cooking with computers.
Cooking with computers.
Image: IBM
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There’s a theory that given an infinite amount of time, a monkey could eventually type out the complete works of Shakespeare. But could that monkey come up with a new way to pair saffron and fennel? IBM’s Watson artificial intelligence computer—famous for its win on Jeopardy!—is trying to do just that.

Steve Abrams, the director of IBM’s Watson Life research program, told Quartz that Watson scanned publicly available data sources to build up a vast library of information on recipes, the chemical compounds in food, and common pairings. (For any budding gastronomers out there, Abrams said Wikia was a surprisingly useful source.) Knowledge that might’ve taken a lifetime for a Michelin-starred chef to attain can now be accessed instantly from your tablet.

What separates Watson from the average computer (or chef) is its ability to find patterns in vast amounts of data. It’s essentially able figure out, through sheer repetition, what combinations of compounds and cuisines work together. This leads to unusual pairings, like Waton’s apple kebab dish, which has some odd ingredients: ”Strawberries and mushrooms share a lot of flavor compounds,” Abrams said. “It turns out they go quite well together.”

The Watson team has actually published a cookbook of its AI-inspired dishes in partnership with the Institute of Culinary Education (ICE), which launches April 14. ICE chefs turned Watson’s ingredient suggestions into recipes. While Quartz has not been able to test out Watson’s esoteric parings yet, here are some that stood out:

  • Belgian bacon pudding, a desert containing dried porcini mushrooms
  • Vietnamese apple kebab, with the vaunted mushroom-and-strawberry pairing
  • Portuguese lobster roll, with appetizing “saffron fluid gel”
  • Hoof-n-Honey ale, with veal stock
  • Thai-Jewish chicken, with potato latkes and rice balls
  • The shrimp cocktail, which is a beverage with actual shrimp in it
  • Kenyan Brussels spouts, with cardamom

While it’s unlikely that Watson will be replacing any contestants on MasterChef in the near future—it can only suggest ingredients, a chef still needs to turn them into something edible—it raises questions about what constitutes creativity. Abrams called Watson a “cognitive computer,” intended to “inspire creativity” in humans. Chef Watson is a step above the average recipe suggestion website, but artificial intelligence has not gotten to a point where computers can make the leap from providing information to acting on what they’ve found.

Watson, unlike the average human being, “can provide cold hard facts, without bias,” Abrams said. But until robots rise up and take our jobs, humans will have the final say in food preparation, which is probably a good thing.