Flavour Profiler App heralds Cognitive Era

Cognitive vs. Artificial Intelligence

Singletons looking for love online often boil down their basic criteria to age, sex and location. But perhaps the first question they should be asking is what flavours they like. After all, our taste preferences are far more complex and individual to us, than a mere geographical location or number.

The ability to analyse our individual taste preferences, match these with flavour and identifying recipes that suit our personal palate is actually a very complex problem to navigate.

This is exactly what Knorr, Unilever’s largest brand, has done with the launch of the Knorr Flavour Profiler. In partnering with Knorr, we developed an online insights tool which helps consumers understand more about their personal flavour profile and provide them with tailored recipe recommendations.

It might sound quirky, but Knorr’s Flavour Profiler is actually a really good example of why it is important for us to understand the advantages of cognitive technology and the distinction with artificial intelligence (AI).

In recent years, AI has in its own right, become the topic du jour. It’s not surprising that the public’s imagination has been ignited by AI since the term was first coined in 1955, given the way it has been depicted by science fiction.

But the truth is, like with so many advanced technologies that were conceived before their time, AI has come to be widely misunderstood. AI is not the panacea to every problem. Applying AI or machine learning to every problem is akin to building an F1 car every time you want to drive to the shops – it is not always the best fit.

Cognitive technology refers to systems that learn at scale, reason with purpose and can interact with humans naturally. It does not “know” the answer, rather it is designed to quickly weigh information and ideas from multiple sources, to reason, and then offer hypotheses for consideration. It then assigns a confidence level to each potential answer.

This is a critical distinction between cognitive technology and AI. Typically in AI, one creates an algorithm to teach systems to learn to solve a particular problem - which may include a number of variants of cognitive technology within one system.

As Knorr already has over 178 years’ worth of experience in the art of flavour, cognitive technology was the best fit to leverage this understanding, to identify the complex connection between flavour, our taste preferences and recipes.

Military connection

Interestingly, the cognitive technology that is behind the Knorr Flavour Profiler was recently designed at the Network and Information Sciences International Technology Alliance (ITA). Led by IBM iX, the ITA is a collaborative research alliance between the UK Ministry of Defence and US Army Research, and a consortium of leading academic and industry partners. The advantage of using cognitive technology is that you can answer questions which have not yet been asked.

Naturally, cognitive technology in military intelligence can enable powerful insights and applications in the field. But what does this look like in our everyday lives?

Driving innovation in cooking

In the case of Knorr’s Flavour Profiler, the engine understands the relationships in a library of hundreds of recipes and products in order to cater for every flavour preference. These are not pre-programmed or hardwired, but inferred.

In the same way that cognitive technology can identify unknown secret agents in an intelligence network by working out who the handlers are, consumers can learn what recipes best suit them based on their individual flavour profiles. This interactive application creates a fun and engaging experience for consumers whilst allowing Knorr to develop a deeper understanding of consumer preferences.

The future of such technology is likely to be cognitive, not “artificial” - which has very different characteristics from those generally attributed to AI, spawning different kinds of technological, scientific and societal challenges and opportunities, with different requirements for governance, policy and management.

Traditional analytics methods have been deterministic; cognitive systems are probabilistic. They generate not just answers to numerical problems, but hypotheses, reasoned arguments and recommendations about more complex — and meaningful — bodies of data.

What’s more, cognitive systems can make sense of the 80% of the world’s data that computer scientists call “unstructured.” This enables them to keep pace with the volume, complexity and unpredictability of information and systems in the modern world.

A cognitive era

Although the Flavour Profiler may seem a rudimentary application today, it is one of the first steps to true technologically driven innovation in cooking. After all, we are in a world where personalisation and relevance are increasingly important in our daily lives. Flavour is no exception – in fact, a global survey of over 12,000 people by Knorr found that 78% of us are more attracted to people who share the same flavour preferences.

None of this involves either sentience or autonomy on the part of machines. Rather, it consists of augmenting the human ability to understand, and act upon, the complex art of how flavours interact. This augmented intelligence is the necessary next step in our ability to harness technology in the pursuit of knowledge, to further our expertise and to improve the human condition.

That is why it represents not just a new technology, but the dawn of a new era of technology, business and society: the Cognitive Era.

The Cognitive Era is the next step in the application of science to understand nature and improve the human condition. In that sense, it is a new chapter of a familiar story, and the controversy surrounding AI is merely the latest example of the age-old debate between those who believe in progress and those who fear it.

The success of cognitive computing will not be measured by Turing tests or a computer’s ability to mimic humans. Today, it is the ability to personalise what recipes suit our taste preferences. Tomorrow, it could be our ability to personalise cancer drugs based on our DNA.

Sally J Owen, Global Digital Director for Unilever within IBM Interactive Experience (iX)