Robots taking all the jobs, cooking edition:
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 researchers are publishing a cookbook with recipe ideas from Watson, and it releases this Tuesday: Cognitive Cooking with Chef Watson: Recipes for Innovation from IBM & the Institute of Culinary Education. I have not read the book, but some of the recipes sound intriguing (“Belgian bacon pudding, a desert containing dried porcini mushrooms”) while others sound, at best, like clever wordplay (“the shrimp cocktail, which is a beverage with actual shrimp in it”). Regardless, I'm purchasing a copy just out of sheer curiosity. Let's hope they turn this resource into an app or service instead of a book, I blame Watson's vanity for wanting this in the outdated format of a book.
To the extent that standout recipes and flavor pairings are a matter of pattern recognition, there's no reason a computer, with its infinitely more scalable hardware and software for that purpose, couldn't match or exceed a human. And, so, a variant of the infinite monkey theorem: given enough time, a computer will write the French Laundry cookbook (and win a third Michelin star).
To be clear, I'm okay with this. I just want to eat tasty food, I'm fine with employing computers to come up with more amazing things to feed me.
For now, however, the computer still requires a human to actually prepare the recipe. In a true demonstration of how far artificial intelligence has progressed, no sufficiently advanced computer wants the drudgery of life as a line chef. Better profits in cookbooks than restaurants anyway.
A new cooking show concept already comes to mind: Top Freestyle Chef. Like freestyle chess, in freestyle cooking competitors would consist of a human or a human consulting with a computer. I am ready to program this into my DVR already, as long as they don't replace Padma Lakshmi with a robot host. I'm as big a fan of artificial intelligence and robots as the next guy, but I think we're a long way from replacing this.