Watson the computer Jeopardy champion is now a cook. The IBM creation has gone from creating history on game-shows to creating cuisine in the kitchen and trying to cook things never previously thought of by humans. For those who find it hard to think up more than spaghetti and meat sauce for dinner, it will be especially interesting to see if Watson will prove to be as talented in the kitchen as he was at answering trivia.
In February 2011, Watson was first introduced to the world when he went up against two Jeopardy contestants. Not just any old contestants either. Ken Jennings was the show’s longest running champion and Brad Rutter held the record for the biggest cash prize won. Though the IBM created Watson was not perfect, repeating opponent’s mistakes and making his own, Watson did manage to answer cryptic clues as ambiguous as “It’s a poor workman who blames these” to win a cash prize of $77,147.
Not only did Watson win, but he also showed that IBM still had some of the sharpest tools in the technological world. The company, who invented the Garry Kasparov beating supercomputer in 1997, are looking to make another statement this year with Watson as their star turn. This time Watson will be in the kitchen. And just as in the game-show studio he was capable of handily outwitting human contestants, he looks to have all the skills to out-create human chefs. Watson has been busy analyzing 35,000 recipes and 1,000 chemical flavor compounds in order to guess what humans might find delicious. And he is able to do it quickly, too. For while a human chef can come up with a combo of two or three ingredients at once, Watson can conjure up a quintillion, also known as a one and 18 zeros.
The concept behind the idea is different from that of the Jeopardy challenge. Then, IBM had wanted to find out if a computer could analyze human language and content better than humans. The Watson cooking project is, according to Watson Director Steve Abrams, designed to see if a computer can match humans, or outdo them, in another thing besides analyzing language: creativity. But it is not just the ability to create more combinations of ingredients quicker. It is about creating ones which have never been thought of before, dishes that surprise as well as satisfy.
And being surprising as well as creative in the kitchen is proving to be a challenge even for Watson. The computer, who is currently being displayed at the South by Southwest Interactive trade show in Austin Texas, was given a kebab, (a dish chosen on twitter), a region, and an ingredient and then went to work on trying to create something never done before. Watson’s concoction of pork, shiitake mushroom, chicken, strawberry, apple, pineapple, curry, lime, green onion, carrot, lemon and mint may have been deemed delicious by tasters, but it was no great shakes on the surprise front. Its score on the surprise scale read zero.
So while Watson proved to quite the Jeopardy champion, he is yet to prove himself to be the creative cook who can surprise, too. For the meanwhile then, in the kitchen at least, humans are safe from being out-done by Watson. But for how long? Few humans ever imagined a computer could beat a world champion at chess or be able to out-answer them at trivia questions. But a computer did. The chances one will turn out to be more creative and surprise them in the kitchen might not be far away, either. Which, for humans, with food being one of the prime needs and preoccupations, might be welcomed with open arms, especially by those keen to put the spaghetti back on the shelves and the meat in the fridge and enjoy something not just a little more creative, but a little more surprising, too.
Commentary by Christian Deverille