Engineering Taste: IBM’s Chef Watson and Technologies of Heteromation

Photostory,Review July 17, 2014 5:04 am

In the documentary El Bulli: Cooking in Progress, Chef Ferran Adria can be seen painstakingly testing new flavors and recipes for the now-shuttered El Bulli restaurant. The menu theme is “water, ” and over the course of weeks, even months, single dishes are perfected with a new flavor addition, a sprinkling of green matcha powder here or an injection of mint-flavored sugar there. The recipes are always distinguished by Adria’s unique flair for new gastronomic devices and technologies. In the film we can see that Chef Adria’s process is a craft combing tacit taste and exacting discipline not uncommon among many top chefs.

ferran adria has a taste

Chef Ferran Adriá of El Bulli, having a taste. [Image source: The Telegraph]

But what if you could automate the recipe design process?

IBM has recently introduced “Chef Watson” as an algorithmic method for coming up with new flavor combinations and recipe ingredients. (IBM calls this “cognitive cooking.”) Watson is the cooking-oriented version of IBM’s artificially intelligent computer system developed several years ago. The system famously beat human contestants in a Jeopardy game in 2011, taking home the 1st prize of $1 million.

Chef Watson at work

Chef Watson at work

chef watson at work

Chef Watson at work [Image source: Bon Appetit]

IBM paired with Bon Appetit to re-envision classic 4th of July recipes using Watson’s recipe generator. Chef Watson suggested such inventive pairings as fried onions + nam pla (fish sauce) + tamarind for a summer slaw, marjoram sugar + blackberries for a cobbler, and butternut squash + cardamom + white wine for a spin on barbecue sauce. That barbecue sauce, “Bengali Butternut BBQ,” even received a stamp of approval from NPR’s “The Salt.” From IBM: “IBM is exploring computational creativity with a cloud-based system that can suggest new and novel recipes you won’t find in any cookbook. Inside this bottle are a set of ingredients that have been selected based on the system’s understanding of flavor compounds, foodpairing theories and the psychology of people’s likes and dislikes. That’s why this sauce blends Indian and Chinese-based ingredients together with dates and butternut squash, among other ingredients, to make a BBQ sauce that is not just surprising, but flavorful.”

Chef Watson's Bengali Butternut BBQ Sauce

Chef Watson’s Bengali Butternut BBQ Sauce

IBM has been quite cheeky and self-aware in its promotion of Chef Watson, with vibrant neon branding, contests, and multiple references to Rosie, the plucky robotic housekeeper from The Jetsons. The partnership with Bon Appetit might be an effort to re-brand the dining company, but it also points to the long history of cooking and computing in the American imagination. An article on Bon Appetit’s site, “A Brief History of Cooking with Computers,” traces inventions, science fictions, and advertisements that dream up new ways to automate meal production, from The Jetsons’ Rosie, to Neiman Marcus’s Honeywell Kitchen Computer, which enjoyed some short-lived advertising fame in 1969.

honeywell-kitchen-computer 1969

The Honeywell Kitchen Computer. Other versions of this ad read, “If she can only cook as well as Honeywell can compute.” [Image source: Bon Appetit]

Rosie the Robot

Rosie the Robot

Chef Watson, however, is not quite the feminized, aproned robot of the 1960s – rooted in gendered and racialized tropes of the cooking housewife or maid – but more of a post-human creativity spark. Watson provides a list of ingredients it thinks might be pleasing together, but it is up to the chef to really make them coalesce into a harmonized dish.

A recent post on the IBM Tumblr quotes one of the software engineers on the Watson team:

“It’s not human versus machine, but human plus machine, taking on challenges together and achieving more than either could do on its own.”

I love this phrasing, and it reminded me of an article in a recent issue of First Monday. In “Heteromation and its (Dis)contents,” the authors describe the shift from “technologies of automation” to “technologies of heteromation.” Automation technologies try to preclude all human involvement in a system, whereas “heteromation” acknowledges – indeed, necessitates – human mediation in a process.

As a geeky foodie I grew up watching my grandmothers cook elaborate Gujarati meals in our Maryland kitchen, and also watching Star Trek episodes, where characters from across the Federation used food synthesizers and food replicators to re-create dishes from home. Sometimes the computer system merely combined ingredients haphazardly and the synthesized food failed to taste like its original, and at other times it was incredibly accurate, translatable, and tasty – perhaps the reason for the wild popularity of cocktails like the Cardassian Sunset across the Star Trek universe.

Star Trek TOS food synthesizer

Food synthesizer from Star Trek: The Original Series. [Image source: Memory Alpha]

The food replicator at Quark's Bar (Star Trek: Deep Space 9).

The food replicator at Quark’s Bar (Star Trek: Deep Space 9).

(While we’re not yet able to push a button and conjure up Cardassian Sunsets or Romulan osol twists, a group of engineers have recently introduced a method for 3-D printing food (so you can produce the Nutella castle of your dreams). And now that El Bulli has closed—due to Chef Adria’s feeling that innovation was “stagnating”—the Chef has launched the “Bullipedia” contest to encourage technologies for gastronomic creativity. One of the winners designed a “cooking language” called Huevo, similar to the Scratch programming language for children developed at MIT; another group designed digital olfaction and gustation devices to mimic tastes and smells by electronically stimulating taste receptors on the tongue, the idea being a method for sharing recipes in-the-works.)

In the meantime, for the simpler home chefs among us, there are recipe generators from Epicurious to this priceless Tumblr to help us gather our random ingredients into a pleasing dish. Chef Watson takes these recipe generators a step further with its more creative taste suggestions and flavor pairings, but leaving it up to the human chefs to execute the measuring and cooking styles for those flavors. Thus humans are “drawn back into the computational fold” to complete the taste and design process, producing taste sensations evocative of home, memories (a la Proust’s madeleine), or pure adventure, as Chef Adria does. The end result is not arbitrarily bottled goop, but the slow, warm heat of a BBQ sauce made from gently-sweated butternut squash pureed with slow-simmered dates, Thai chili, fresh turmeric, cardamom and a dozen other ingredients into spicy-sweet, lickable goodness. Yum.

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