Watson from Jeopardy to Chef extraordinaire

Gordon Ramsay, Ferran Adrià, Jamie Oliver, Paul Bocuse, you’d better watch out – you have a new rival. Chef Watson may be under nine years old, but he is about to publish his first cookery book. This prodigy also won $1m on the American quiz show Jeopardy. I have been following Watson’s career since 2011. I think we can agree that we are in the presence of a unique talent. If you hadn’t realised it already Watson is not human. It is a computer designed by IBM. It is an artificially intelligent computer system capable of answering questions posed in natural language, which was named after IBM’s first CEO Thomas J. Watson, famous for his infamous 1943 prediction that there would be a world market for five computers. This is the blurb from the website:

Watson is a cognitive technology that processes information more like a human than a computer—by understanding natural language, generating hypotheses based on evidence, and learning as it goes. And learn it does. Watson “gets smarter” in three ways: by being taught by its users, by learning from prior interactions, and by being presented with new information. This means organizations can more fully understand and use the data that surrounds them, and use that data to make better decisions.

It was IBM Research manager Charles Lickel who came up with the idea of an IBM computer competing on a popular TV quiz show. At the time of its Jeopardy appearance, Watson had access to 200 million pages of structured and unstructured content consuming four terabytes of disk storage including the full text of Wikipedia. However, it was not connected to the Internet during the game. For each clue, Watson’s three most probable responses were displayed on the television screen. The machine was able to answer questions including puns, synonyms, homonyms, slang and jargon. First it zeroed in on the key words in a clue, then it would comb its enormous data bank of human knowledge for clusters of associations with those words, checking the most popular hits against all the contextual information it has at its disposal. Once it felt “confident” enough it would buzz with the answer. This method proved too much for a great human champion Ken Jennings, who, like Gary Kasparov before him, was overpowered by an IBM artificial intelligence machine. You can see a video of how Watson works:

Winning Jeopardy was just a showcase for the potential for this kind of machine. There are many possible applications in information-intensive fields such as legal research, telecommunications, financial services, and government. One particularly promising area is medicine. Doctors pose a query to the system describing symptoms and other related factors. Watson can then examine available data sources, forming and testing hypotheses before it finally comes up with a list of personalised confidence-scored recommendations, just like it did on Jeopardy. This will never replace humans, but it can surely be an invaluable tool. It is also revolutionising the travel sector. Travelocity reduced the need for live travel agents to handle routine arrangements. But with cognitive computing IBM will be able to harness the power of computing for giving tailored and customised travel advice. WayBlazer, powered by Watson, will allow its customers to ask questions using a natural language interface.

And now we come to Chef Watson. The Guardian featured a piece about Watson’s recipes, which will be published on April 14th this year. Cognitive Cooking with Chef Watson: Recipes for Innovation from IBM & the Institute of Culinary Education will set you back $21.14 from Amazon.com. Watson was fed data about foods traditionally enjoyed by humans. The idea was the computer to analyse what we like in order to suggest new suggest new flavour combinations. There is a human element; chefs at the US Institute of Culinary Education then transformed these ingredient lists into recipes. They promise “unusual ingredient combinations that man alone might never imagine”. You can see a video of the project here:

The Guardian journalist looked at five recipes and seemed distinctly underwhelmed. He did give Kenyan brussels sprouts a 4.5/5 but the American kung pao chicken and Plum pancetta cider got 1 and 0 respectively. However, you bet against computers at your peril. Just ask Garry Kasparov!



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