Editor’s note: This
2012 IBM 5-in-5 article is by IBM’s Dr. Lav Varshney, research scientist, Services Research.
An extraordinary dining experience of perfectly cooked food,
with unique flavor combinations meticulously designed on a plate, heightens all
of our senses.
But we may not realize that the way we perceive flavors and
the characteristics of a “good” meal are fundamentally chemical and neural. In
five years, computers will be able to construct never-before-heard-of recipes
to delight palates – even those with health or dietary constraints – using
foods’ molecular structure.
Lessons from Watson:
Whereas traditional computing uses deductive reasoning to
solve a problem with a definitive answer, our research team uses inductive
reasoning to model human perception. Watson was a concrete example of this
inductive type of computing system to interpret natural language and answer
vague and abstract questions.
Our team is designing a learning system that adds one more
dimension to cognitive computing: creativity.
The system analyzes foods in terms of how chemical compounds
interact with each other, the number of atoms in each compound, and the bonding
structure and shapes of compounds. Coupled with psychophysical data and models
on which chemicals produce perceptions of pleasantness, familiarity and
enjoyment, the end result is a unique recipe, using combinations of ingredients
that are scientifically flavorful.
So unlike Watson, which used known information to answer a
question with a fixed answer, this system is creating something that’s never
been seen before. It’s pushing computing to new fields of creativity and
quickly giving us designs for novel, high-quality food combinations.
Picky eaters, dietary
restrictions and social impact
Obesity and malnutrition pose severe health risks for populations
around the world. Efforts to combat these issues have reached schools, where
cafeteria lunches, for example, are getting
a bad rap: federal mandates have swapped cookies for green beans, french
fries for apples, and pizza for low-fat, low-sodium fajitas, with food often ending
up in the trash instead of the student. Likewise, for meals at hospitals and
My team believes if you can optimize flavor while meeting
nutritional constraints, you can mitigate health issues. For food service companies,
creative computers can come up with flavorful meals that also meet
predetermined nutritional objectives – so rather than throwing the meal away
and heading for a bag of potato chips in the vending machine, students would eat
a healthy meal they actually enjoy.
Many communities in sub-Saharan Africa only have access to a
few base ingredients for any given meal. But limited resources should not eliminate
the enjoyment of food. A creative computer can optimize flavor profiles within these
constraints, creating a variety of never thought of meals that please the
palate, encourages consumption, and helps prevent malnutrition.
There’s what in my quiche?
Our culinary creation system has access to large databases
of recipes from online, governmental, and specialized sources. The repository
allows the system to learn what we consider to be good food. For example, from
50 recipes of quiche, the system can infer that a "good" combination
of ingredients for any variation of quiche would include eggs, at least one
vegetable, and three spices.
With an understanding about what quiche is, and access to
information about a world of other ingredients, the system can create a completely
novel quiche. Perhaps a quiche that uses venison, fenugreek and sandalwood?
Borrowing methods from psychology and information theory, the
system can compute how surprising this new recipe is compared to previous knowledge.
If the new recipe is also flavorful and healthy, a chef might consider putting
it on her menu.
How did we get here? Everyone eats and food is central to
who we are. So, it would be very powerful if we can enhance this human experience
in such a visceral way.
From a computing perspective, it is pointing us in a completely
different direction around machine creativity. With a research team that
even includes a professionally trained chef-turned-computer-engineer, we
believe that in five years, amazing meals will be created with the help of
If you think cognitive systems will most-likely have the ability to taste, before augmenting the other senses, vote for it, here.
IBM thinks these cognitive systems will connect to all of
our other senses. You can read more about sight, smell, hearing, and touch technology
in this year’s IBM 5 in 5.