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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