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Lessons from IBM’s Watson Powered Lunch Truck at SXSW
Posted on March 19th 2014
It’s a Peruvian Potato Poutine. Only unlike a typical Canadian poutine — potatoes topped with a light brown gravy-like sauce and cheese curds — this one had tomatoes, cauliflower, onions and cumin. Yes, cumin.
How did that happen? Watson. As in IBM’s Watson. Using his vast database of food qualities, chemical knowhow and, dare we say, creativity, the big-brained computer thought it up.
Watson, who first made headlines with its win on Jeopardy, was at it again at SxSW, delighting hundreds of people with two new recipes every day. The computer can’t actually cook, but it knows how unexpected ingredient combinations will taste, even predicting whether you’ll find its concoctions pleasant, familiar or surprising.
“It came up with combinations and ingredients I’d never imagine myself,” said James Briscione, the director of culinary development at the Institute of Culinary Education, IBM’s partner in the project. But they worked. My Poutine was excellent. And definitely more interesting, complex and multi-textured than the original.
At SxSW, IBM crowdsourced a daily request via Twitter. The throngs decided what they wanted to eat as a main ingredient the next day. ICE chefs then picked a region and cooking time and Watson delivered all the ingredients; many of which had never before been united in the same recipe.
We know that Watson can crunch numbers, identify patterns, predict outcomes. But IBM wanted to prove that Watson can also be creative. And in the future even more useful. With its vast knowledge of ingredients, chemical makeup, calories, texture and flavors, maybe Watson will be the means to better nutrition, or allergy management, or more effective dieting.
But let’s look at the Watson food truck from another perspective. That of marketing. For that’s what really made this effort creative. It took an experience, mixed in some crowdsourcing, added a dash of social media and served up a perfectly prepared case study in how to generate awareness and participation.