MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
Now to a tasty installment of All Tech Considered.
This week, NPR's tech team is exploring ways that new technology can change how we eat. And first up, how one of the world's smartest machines is bringing big data into the kitchen. IBM's Watson supercomputer can't taste a thing, but it was a great "Jeopardy" contestant with its vast database of facts about the world. Well, now some cooks are using Watson to come up with recipes they never would have tried on their own, as NPR's Laura Sydell reports.
LAURA SYDELL, BYLINE: I had a few things in the kitchen. I didn't know what to make with them - ground turkey, frozen peas, dried mushrooms, canned tomatoes. I sent an e-mail to IBM. I live in San Francisco. It's easy to get Asian and Mexican spices. A couple of days later...
...The recipes have arrived in my inbox, and I'm going to open them up - three Thai ground turkey taco recipes. And there's a second recipe. Ah, this is for my frozen peas. We have Mexican green pea pancakes.
I pick one of the taco recipes, and I'm going to make the pancakes, too. I need a quick shop.
Have a good night.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Thank you so much - you, too.
SYDELL: Bye, bye.
The next morning I set out to cook lunch for a friend.
It's 9:30 now. I have three hours. Let's cook. Some of the ingredients, like one and a quarter ounce of grated citrus peel, is definitely a little bit strange as something to put in a turkey taco, but I'm going to give it a try.
As I'm cooking, let's talk about how Watson came up with these recipes. When you taste food and you find it pleasant or not, there's a chemical reaction. Watson has a big database of what kinds of chemical reactions we humans like, says Steven Abrams, an engineer with the Watson group.
STEVEN ABRAMS: And if you can understand what's in an actual ingredient - so, what is in butter? What's in strawberries? What's in chocolate? What are the key flavor compounds that give them those pleasant sensations? Then you can make predictions about what's going to be pleasant - what's going to be sweet and spicy and salty and savory.
SYDELL: A great chef uses her personal knowledge and intuition to do this says Abrams, but a human chef has her limits, especially when faced with certain constraints - if they're cooking for someone on a special diet or if there's a shortage of certain foods.
ABRAMS: It might be that you want to improve fat content or the calorie content. And it might be that what you want to do is focus less on certain fishes that are maybe overfished or may be endangered, and instead trade in other fishes.
SYDELL: And it isn't just engineers like Abrams who are excited about Watson. IBM's Watson is collaborating with the Institute of Culinary Education in New York. James Briscione, Director of Culinary Development there, says among the recipes they developed with Watson...
JAMES BRISCIONE: Vietnamese apple kebab.
SYDELL: Briscione says Watson came up with an unusual flavor combination for the dish.
BRISCIONE: Chicken, pork, mushrooms, strawberries and apples all share this one flavor compound. They're dekalactone. That came out wrong. They're gama-do-dekalactone. That's shared by all five ingredients, and it makes them a really fascinating match.
SYDELL: Briscione, who clearly knows cooking better than chemistry, says the dish is a hit. As for my Watson dishes...
...Come on in. Lunch is ready (Laughter).
SYDELL: I've invited my colleague, Aarti Shahani, over to taste the results.
We've got one to taste first here. OK, Aarti, this is Watson's recipe for Thai ground turkey taco.
AARTI SHAHANI, BYLINE: OK, great. So...
SHAHANI: It's very good.
SYDELL: Is it?
SYDELL: So Watson did OK?
SHAHANI: Yeah, 'cause usually turkey doesn't taste like anything, and this tastes like something.
SYDELL: Then we tried the Mexican pea pancakes. The pancakes are made from grated potato, flour and the dried mushrooms. Then there's a sauce that uses the peas that you pour over it.
SHAHANI: I like it. I like the mushroom in this.
SYDELL: But in the end, Aarti and I feel like something's missing. Yes, putting mushrooms in the pancakes is nice. The citrus flavor in the turkey is interesting, but...
SHAHANI: I mean, it's not fine dining, for sure. (Laughter) And that's not about the cook.
SYDELL: Still, this is a major leap for a computer. Computers don't normally synthesize information and create things from scratch says Sean Gourley, the founder and CEO of the data analytics company Quid.
SEAN GOURLEY: We're all sort of familiar with this idea of I can recommend, like, you know, a book for you to read or I can recommend a song to listen to. But that seems quite different from let me create a new kind of recipe. Let me create a new combination of foods that will be novel and tasty.
SYDELL: Most importantly, Gourley says being able to access vast amounts of data about food could change how we cook and eat.
GOURLEY: We've only been kind of at this kind of whole agricultural cooking game for, you know, a few thousand years, right? And we've only explored a small piece of it. So with computers, you know, helping us, perhaps there's a whole lot more to uncover.
SYDELL: As for me, when I said goodbye to my colleague, Aarti Shahani, after lunch, only one thing went through my mind. When will Watson be able to do the dishes? Laura Sydell, NPR News, San Francisco.