Can A Computer Cook?

As you may recall from a recent episode of Overheard, I find many of the technological advancements being made in the world of food to be pretty creepy.

Still, the push for new food tech persists. Most recently, IBM's famously intelligent computer, "Watson", has moved on from humiliating people on TV to compiling some of the weirdest recipes you would otherwise never, ever hear of:

Watson's Austrian Chocolate Burrito

Watson's Austrian Chocolate Burrito

Watson’s cooking expertise begins with its backlog of some 35,000 recipes, which collectively provide basic information about food composition and flavor pairings. (What’s a quiche? What’s ratatouille?) It also knows the molecular chemistry of over a thousand different flavor ingredients—everything from black tea to Bantu beer—and has input from the racy-sounding field of hedonic psychophysics, which quantifies the tastes and flavor sensations that people tend to like. (Shrimp and licorice? Caviar and white chocolate? Blue cheese and rum?) Watson’s mission, based on these data, is to invent recipes that are both yummy and unconventional. And it looks like it’s succeeding.

Given a theme and a description—say “Spanish” and “breakfast bun” or “Thai” and “sweet potato”—Watson can come up with any number of suggestions with lists of novel ingredients. Its culinary mix-and-matches have produced such unexpected combos as bearmeat with saffron and sandalwood, avocado Napoleons, and an off-the-wall kebab featuring pork, chicken, strawberries, shitake mushrooms, pineapple, apples, curry, green onions, carrots, lemon, lime, and mint. Other Watson inventions include Creole Shrimp-Lamb Dumpling, Baltic Apple Pie, Austrian Chocolate Burrito, and Bengali Butternut BBQ Sauce, this last a scrumptious-sounding blend of white wine, butternut squash, rice vinegar, dates, cilantro, tamarind, cardamom, and turmeric, plus such old-time BBQ standbys as molasses, garlic, and mustard.

So, this is weird, right? But will it ever really matter? I doubt it. The art of creating a new dish is a decidedly human endeavor. Even if these recipes sound compelling (I'm frankly not so sure that they do) or taste amazing, there is something about knowing that a computer created them that would probably deflate the experience of making- or eating- one of them.

Maybe that's just me, though. Read the article and decide how you feel about it.