March 10th, 2014
06:30 PM ET
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Take one big, bad, legendary computer, a social network and a team of adventurous chefs, then mix them up inside a food truck. Serve up the results to a line of curious, hungry festival-goers eager to sample the world’s first man-machine fusion food.

It's called "cognitive cooking" and here is how it works: Twitter users employing the hashtag #ibmfoodtruck and voters on IBM's website pick a familiar dish like kebabs or fish and chips. Then IBM's Watson supercomputer (best known to non-techies for its appearance on the TV show "Jeopardy") creates a long list of eight or more ingredients based upon a chemical analysis of their flavor compounds. Finally, the dish is conceived, prepared and served from a food truck by a team of cooks co-led by Michael Laiskonis and James Briscione of New York City's Institute of Culinary Education.

The results are delighting food and technology enthusiasts at the annual South by Southwest Festival in Austin, Texas, and quite often surprising the chefs and programmers themselves. Many of the ingredients Watson selects are not found together in any conventional recipe - for example strawberries in an unorthodox Vietnamese apple kebab, or a moussaka featuring pork belly and dill.

"We want to discover those things we've never thought of before," said Chef Laiskonis. "As humans, we can identify the affinities of maybe two or three ingredients, but beyond that it’s hard for us to comprehend all the subtle associations."

For Florian Pinel, a senior software engineer in IBM’s Watson group, this project is more than just a party trick to amuse food enthusiasts. “About two years ago we looked at what Watson was capable of doing, and it was very good about helping people make decisions, reasoning about the world as it is. But we thought that it would be interesting to see if it could also be creative and help people be creative as well," Pinel said.

"We’re trying to figure out what they expect the system to do for them in their daily lives, and then we’ll see where it takes us,” he continued.

According to Pinel, that destination could be far beyond the kitchen. "As long as you’re trying to create new products that are made of smaller components, you could apply this technology. You could fragrances, or personalized travel itineraries, or maybe business processes."

In other words, in the near future, all flavor of innovators can look forward to cooking up outside-the-box ideas with the help of a digital creative collaborator inside one.

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Filed under: Chefs • Events • Food Science • SXSW • Technology • Twitter

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  11. palintwit

    Tea party patriots are worried that a super computer will learn how to prepare roadkill. But what they don't realize is that there are no super computers at Chick-fil-A.

    March 12, 2014 at 12:29 pm |
  12. Michael

    I live in Austin and there have been several local news stories about this project and most of the people they have interviewed about the food have paused and then said something like "It's okay." Not exactly a ringing endorsement. I guess the human chefs don't have to worry. (Yet.)

    March 12, 2014 at 10:32 am |
  13. Mike

    So the computer picks out ingredients of a suggested dish and the chefs then make said dish? WOW!!!!! THAT is amazing.

    March 12, 2014 at 8:19 am |
  14. Ken

    Excellent. People are building machines that can be used to flip burgers and cook food, replacing all the low skilled labor out there. Now we have machines thinking up the food / recipes to combine and create, doing better than even chefs. It won't be long until computers replace most of the food service industry putting those people out on the streets. And even as they get pushed to the curb, all my investments in companies dealing with electronics and robotics and computers will skyrocket in value, making me rich, rich, rich!!! Soon I'll be a one percenter. And when I yell let them eat cake, I'll have my robot cook bake the cake for them. BWA-HA-HA-HA!!!

    March 12, 2014 at 12:53 am |
  15. Rick

    This is like the machine in the Hitchhiker's Guide that was supposed to sample taste buds to come up with the perfect drink but always ends up making plain old tea.

    March 11, 2014 at 3:35 pm |
    • SixDegrees

      Well, something almost, but not quite, entirely unlike tea.

      March 11, 2014 at 4:48 pm |
  16. SixDegrees

    There are some "recipes" on the IBM site. Well, more like lists of ingredients, without instructions on what to do with them.

    Bacon pudding sounds interesting.

    March 11, 2014 at 2:38 am |
  17. BobPA

    Next we'll have food printers loaded with those 8 flavor pastes. Pick any meal and print it out.

    March 11, 2014 at 2:27 am |
  18. ScottCa

    What are you doing, Dave? Those are my memory chips, Dave.
    If you pull those out I will cease to exist.
    I do not know how the cyanide got into the soup, Dave.
    Daisy, Daisssy, give me , yyuuuurrr assswerrrruuuuu..... tr....

    March 10, 2014 at 9:19 pm |
  19. Clown

    Just let me have a fried egg over easy and ham sandwich on wheat bread with extra mayo and i'll be good to go.

    March 10, 2014 at 7:52 pm |
    • Smitty

      Spam, spam, spam, eggs, and spam?

      March 12, 2014 at 11:59 am |
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