One of Lav Varshney's recent research projects was to test if a human trait — creativity — can be encoded on a computer. It can, and it makes darn good food.
New UI professor's computer 'dreams up' some interesting flavor combinations
Lav Varshney is one of those people who eat food on a daily basis.
One of Varshney's recent research projects was to test if a human trait — creativity — can be encoded on a computer.
It can, and it makes darn good food.
Varshney, an assistant professor who came to the University of Illinois just last month, was working at IBM on a project to rival Watson, the computer who appeared on "Jeopardy."
Some call the project "Chef Watson"; others have called it the "synthetic gastronomist."
At any rate, one of the desserts was sublime enough to make the cut for catering at Varshney's recent wedding.
He'll even attend the South By Southwest Festival in March to demonstrate the program.
One advantage a computer Chef Watson has over us humanoids is that it comes without any prejudices.
You mix black pepper, saffron and cocoa powder in a dessert. Does that make you creative or crazy?
Vashney's answer is "creative."
The recipe's end result bears him out: It is tasty. The chef makes combinations that don't sound right to humans but have some chemical interactions and other data to back them up.
More importantly, they taste good and can be good for special diets, Varshney says.
The interm department head at the UI's Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, William Sanders, says Varshney's work has wider applications than cookery.
"Lav brings a unique combination of talents to the ECE Department. He is interested in communications, information theory and neuroscience. His work on computational creativity at IBM brought together his interests and helped to illustrate the innumerable ways in which large amounts of data can be harnessed for interesting and useful purposes," Sanders said.
"Lav adds strong industry experience and a large number of interesting ideas to the mix of the already strong big data research and education at ECE and Illinois."
The food application takes full advantage of computing power.
Chef Watson can deal with more ingredients than a human — 15 at a time, when we mere mortals usually top out at a handful.
With chefs at the Institute of Culinary Education in New York City, the IBM team has found new combinations of ingredients and flavors that people might like — but probably wouldn't know they might like.
In practical terms, Varshney is looking at improving school lunch menus.
Chef Watson can also be steered to create recipes low in salt and fat, or low in sugars, including lactose.
Some things to know about computer-driven recipes
University of Illinois Professor Lav Varshney says that flavors and textures of food we love are based significantly on chemistry — and how chemicals are processed in humans. Varshney predicts that computers like Chef Watson will construct recipes based on the molecular structure of those chemicals.
Cultural preferences can be mish-mashed to producing surprising results, such as Spanish paella and an Indian curry, with a healthful savor of turmeric.
He's not just a programmer, he's a customer. At Varshney's wedding to Nina Kshretry, Chef Watson came up with a dessert recipe.