Man + Machine: How IBM and the Institute of Culinary Education are bringing culinary perfection to SXSW

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Cognitive Computing's Next Challenge? Creativity & Cooking

by Mahmoud Naghshineh, VP, Industries and Solutions, IBM Reseach


Illustration by Sophie Butcher

Indian Turmeric Paella. Italian Grilled Lobster. Ecuadorian Strawberry Dessert. You say "yum." I say, "computational creativity." Turns out we’re both right.

And if you’re at SXSW this year and stop by the food truck that IBM and the Institute of Culinary Education (ICE) are running, you can taste the future of food for yourself, in what is IBM's latest effort to expand the scope of cognitive computing systems by exploring if a machine can be creative. IBM's Watson system is being tested to see if a cognitive computing system can make us more creative by coming up with new ideas and solutions.

If the pinnacle of human intelligence is said to be creativity, the promise of computational creativity is that it can assist humans in thinking outside the box and explore new white spaces. A system that can generate new things the world has never seen before is a significant step in cognitive computing.

At SXSW, the ICE chefs will be cooking up new recipes with the help of an unusual partner in the kitchen: a “virtual chef.” This cloud-based cognitive cooking system understands why thousands of different recipes are appealing, what tastes people prefer, and how the chemistry of different ingredients interact.

Based on tweets of suggested dishes that guests would like to see on the food truck’s menu each day, ICE chefs and IBM researchers will tap into a mobile, cloud-based version of our cognitive cooking system, to turn the top-trending tweeted ideas into one-of-a-kind dishes. Given the quintillions of possible ingredient combinations that might turn out to be a creative recipe, the system will be analyzing large amounts of big data stored in an IBM Cloud.

Why food? There’s no better place to explore computational creativity than cooking. Great food can seem so mysterious. We tend to think of it as a product of art, of intuition. Yet, in fact, there’s a massive amount of chemical and neural science that helps explain why one dish is sublime and another isn’t.

At the same time, given the numerous different combinations of possible ingredients out there, it's impossible for a human to imagine and reason about them all. Because while we humans really are gifted with intuition, we have trouble thinking about large numbers of possibilities. Good chefs can think in pairs of ingredients, and even the very best can only juggle three ingredients successfully.

This is why cognitive computing can spur creativity. Because it’s not the kind of computing we’re used to today. It’s not a search engine that simply sifts through data to spit up a list of already published recipes. It’s not programmed to come up with a defined answer to a defined question, an “if, then” query. It understands, learns, and considers not just big data but also human perception.

When it comes to food, that means that for every new combination of flavors the cognitive cooking system suggests, it models the chemistry of all of the seemingly endless matchups of ingredients it has learned, as well as how people perceive different tastes. And it doesn’t just toss out a million possible ideas, it selects the top recommendations based on which ones it thinks are the most novel and tasty.

Still, a system can’t do this on its own. That’s the other thing about cognitive computing: it’s about pairing the best of what humans are good at with what computer systems are built to accomplish to enhance human capabilities and produce the best outcomes. Cognitive cooking is a sous-chef working along side seasoned professional chefs.

At our food truck, this data-driven insight into ingredient pairings means that ICE’s chefs can develop delicious new recipes faster and with fewer false starts along the way. We’ll be able to keep fans of the truck amazed by the outcome of their tweets -- and well fed.

But really what we’re trying to show with this fluid, creative teamwork is the broader impact that computational creativity will have in the future. Because it’s going to be able to help all kinds of people and organizations create healthier foods, more sustainable foods, or foods that meet dietary restrictions, such as gluten-free or vegan. Add in the cloud and this makes it possible to scale the reach of this technology.

Yet, food is just the first creative field where we think that computational creativity and cognitive computing systems like Watson can have an impact. This new approach of computing can not only help chefs, but also many other industries where design and discovery are key, and offer the opportunity to transform customer experience. Truly superior customer experiences are based on perception -- appealing taste, appearance and design, to name a few -- and represent a major differentiator in a variety of industries, including retail, consumer goods, hospitality and travel.

To learn more about cognitive computing and cooking check out this video:


Mahmoud Naghshineh, PhD, is Vice President, Industries and Solutions, IBM Research, where he is responsible for IBM’s worldwide research efforts in the transformation of business through data. He has held a variety of executive positions within IBM. Naghshineh is a Fellow of the IEEE, was an adjunct professor in the department of electrical engineering, Columbia University, and holds a number of IBM outstanding recognition awards and patents. He received his doctoral degree from Columbia University, New York.



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