IBM 5 in 5 2012: Taste

Digital taste buds will help you to eat smarter.

Editor’s note: This 2012 IBM 5-in-5 article is by IBM’s Dr. Lav Varshney, research scientist, Services Research.

An extraordinary dining experience of perfectly cooked food, with unique flavor combinations meticulously designed on a plate, heightens all of our senses.

But we may not realize that the way we perceive flavors and the characteristics of a “good” meal are fundamentally chemical and neural. In five years, computers will be able to construct never-before-heard-of recipes to delight palates – even those with health or dietary constraints – using foods’ molecular structure.

Lessons from Watson: inductive reasoning

Whereas traditional computing uses deductive reasoning to solve a problem with a definitive answer, our research team uses inductive reasoning to model human perception. Watson was a concrete example of this inductive type of computing system to interpret natural language and answer vague and abstract questions.

Our team is designing a learning system that adds one more dimension to cognitive computing: creativity.

The system analyzes foods in terms of how chemical compounds interact with each other, the number of atoms in each compound, and the bonding structure and shapes of compounds. Coupled with psychophysical data and models on which chemicals produce perceptions of pleasantness, familiarity and enjoyment, the end result is a unique recipe, using combinations of ingredients that are scientifically flavorful.

So unlike Watson, which used known information to answer a question with a fixed answer, this system is creating something that’s never been seen before. It’s pushing computing to new fields of creativity and quickly giving us designs for novel, high-quality food combinations.

Picky eaters, dietary restrictions and social impact

Obesity and malnutrition pose severe health risks for populations around the world. Efforts to combat these issues have reached schools, where cafeteria lunches, for example, are getting a bad rap: federal mandates have swapped cookies for green beans, french fries for apples, and pizza for low-fat, low-sodium fajitas, with food often ending up in the trash instead of the student. Likewise, for meals at hospitals and nursing homes.

My team believes if you can optimize flavor while meeting nutritional constraints, you can mitigate health issues. For food service companies, creative computers can come up with flavorful meals that also meet predetermined nutritional objectives – so rather than throwing the meal away and heading for a bag of potato chips in the vending machine, students would eat a healthy meal they actually enjoy.

Many communities in sub-Saharan Africa only have access to a few base ingredients for any given meal. But limited resources should not eliminate the enjoyment of food. A creative computer can optimize flavor profiles within these constraints, creating a variety of never thought of meals that please the palate, encourages consumption, and helps prevent malnutrition.

There’s what in my quiche?

Our culinary creation system has access to large databases of recipes from online, governmental, and specialized sources. The repository allows the system to learn what we consider to be good food. For example, from 50 recipes of quiche, the system can infer that a "good" combination of ingredients for any variation of quiche would include eggs, at least one vegetable, and three spices.

With an understanding about what quiche is, and access to information about a world of other ingredients, the system can create a completely novel quiche. Perhaps a quiche that uses venison, fenugreek and sandalwood? 

Borrowing methods from psychology and information theory, the system can compute how surprising this new recipe is compared to previous knowledge. If the new recipe is also flavorful and healthy, a chef might consider putting it on her menu.

How did we get here? Everyone eats and food is central to who we are. So, it would be very powerful if we can enhance this human experience in such a visceral way.

From a computing perspective, it is pointing us in a completely different direction around machine creativity. With a research team that even includes a professionally trained chef-turned-computer-engineer, we believe that in five years, amazing meals will be created with the help of cognitive systems.

If you think cognitive systems will most-likely have the ability to taste, before augmenting the other senses, vote for it, here.

IBM thinks these cognitive systems will connect to all of our other senses. You can read more about sight, smell, hearing, and touch technology in this year’s IBM 5 in 5.


  1. Different people rate food and particular recipes as "good". I personally dislike chickpeas and hate the taste of coriander but know many folks that love these items. So, I'm unsure how the cognitive system will decide what "good" when humans don't agree.

  2. I suppose there would be no way to decide what is good, save for taste tests and market trials geared towards various "target demographics." Either that, or we all end up eating "school food."