✍️ Column by Masa Sweidan (@masasweidan), our Business Development Manager.
The use of AI in the food industry has been growing over the past few years with applications such as robotics, kiosks, chatbots and recommendation engines. According to Mordor Intelligence, AI in the food and beverage market was valued at $3.07 billion in 2020 and is expected to reach $29.94 billion by 2026. A prime example of this progress is Miso Robotics’ autonomous robotic kitchen assistant, Flippy, which was introduced in 2018 when it was able to grill 150 burgers per hour. Three years (and a pandemic later) and it can now cook 19 different foods including burgers, chicken wings and onion rings while keeping track of cooking times and temperatures. Not only will this machine reduce labor costs, but it will also improve the quality of food while providing deep insight into oil usage and product counts.
With various innovative solutions like Flippy popping up on the market, the benefits of AI in the restaurant industry all seem to stem from its efficiency and precision. When working properly, AI can increase savings and improve food safety, which is especially important as we navigate this COVID-19 era. Although these aspects are vital to the success of any restaurant, the true magic happens inside the kitchen where chefs cook delicious meals that often reflect unique social, cultural, and environmental influences. With this in mind, does AI have a place in the kitchen to support the creative process of professional chefs who have dedicated their life to learning the techniques and intricacies of high-quality cooking?
It is difficult to imagine a world where a machine prepares an entire meal from start to finish, because there is no doubt that the preparation and consumption of a delicately assembled meal is inherently linked to unique human experiences. How will a machine be able to understand and, more importantly, communicate a story through a particular spice that may remind you of your grandma’s specialty dish or the smell of a dessert that transports you back to your favourite childhood memories?
At the tail end of 2020, Sony launched their Gastronomy Flagship Project to explore the potential of new technologies like AI and Robotics through interviews with chefs and professionals in the industry. This endeavour consists of the “research and development of an AI application for new recipe creation, a robotics solution that can assist chefs in their cooking process, and a community co-creation initiative that will serve as a foundation to these activities.” Perhaps the most interesting aspect of this project is the focus on using technology to achieve even greater creativity, rather than replacing the more repetitive tasks in the kitchen.
Surprisingly, the sentiments of chefs towards the use of AI in the world of gastronomy seem to be quite optimistic. By shifting the narrative to emphasize the fact that cooking is actually both art and science, the potential of technology becomes more apparent. Jordi Roca, a co-owner of 3 Michelin star restaurants, said it perfectly: “AI has been used to evolve musical compositions. My thinking is if it can be done with music, it can be done with flavors, because at the end of the day it consists of harmonizing a score or an aromatic chord.”
This is the key. At its core, the process of cooking and baking is an applied science, because the building blocks of all food are large biological molecules such as proteins, carbohydrates, and fats. Put simply, the structure of a molecule defines how it functions in a cell and how a food may taste or react when being prepared. However, the artistic element comes into play with the creativity and emotion that is involved throughout the whole process. The tricky part is establishing the balance between using AI to optimize the molecular gastronomy of a dish, yet leaving room for the human chefs to express their imagination during the preparation of that meal. IBM spotted this opportunity and decided to develop Chef Watson.
Through computational creativity, Chef Watson can create recipes that suggest ingredient combinations and styles of cooking that humans would never have considered, due to its ability to analyse large data sets. After being fed 10,000 recipes from Bon Appetit’s archives, it used natural language processing to learn the underlying logic of how ingredients were combined. This is particularly useful in the context of gastronomy because even the best professional chefs can only reason about pairing three ingredients, whereas Chef Watson can examine up to nine ingredient combinations. The power of this machine stems from its ability to model both the chemistry of the ingredients and the human perception of flavour.
It should be noted that this particular invention has not received much media attention or coverage since 2015, but it does support the vision that the future of gastronomy can integrate technology to achieve emotion. Josep Roca, co-owner and sommelier of El Celler de Can Roca, which was ranked the best restaurant in the world in 2015, takes it a step further and believes that AI can be used to create more personalized dining experiences for each individual. By using inputs about a customer’s origin and preferences, they could be provided with a tailored menu that transports them back to their favourite memories.
These novel ideas that incorporate AI in the professional kitchen are surely exciting, but they also beg the question: will certain cuisines be misrepresented or completely left behind? Moreover, culinary traditions and recipes are typically passed down from generation to generation and are not necessarily meant to be perfect. Therefore, the most potential seems to lie in developing AI for the discovery and inspiration of flavours, rather than the actual cooking of a meal. Although it is unlikely that an “artificial intellichef” will be preparing your order at a fine dining restaurant in the near future, the developments in this space point towards a new reality where AI can assist with the recipe creation, but humans still have the final, artistic touch.
Credits to my dear friend and colleague, Connor Wright, for coming up with the clever term: “Artificial Intellichef!”