Tasting the future: how AI is redefining our relationship with food

As AI continues to evolve, researchers are turning their attention to one of the defining characteristics of the human experience: our sense of taste.
  • A wine-tasting AI that can help you find the perfect wine
  • This algorithm ensures that every meal you eat is perfect
  • An electronic tongue gives robots a sense of taste
  • Your next chef could be an AI

Artificial intelligence (AI) has become an integral part of the modern human experience in recent years. It’s the invisible assistant that tags our vacation photos with uncanny accuracy, the virtual stylist that knows our fashion preferences better than we do, and the efficient courier that ensures our meals arrive piping hot at our doorsteps. However, its pervasive influence is starting to raise profound questions about its role in our lives and what it means to be human in an age where machines can mimic — and sometimes even surpass — human capabilities. As AI’s capabilities continue to evolve, researchers are increasingly turning their attention to one of the defining characteristics of the human experience: our sense of taste. It is not just about survival and nutrition; taste embodies culture, memory, and emotion. It is a sensory journey that ties us to our childhoods, our heritage, and our most intimate moments. Yet, this deeply personal and subjective experience is exactly what AI researchers are now striving to understand, replicate, and possibly enhance.

Teaching machines to use human sensory experiences results in better algorithms that benefit the user”.

Serge Belongie, a professor at the University of Copenhagen

A wine-tasting AI that can help you find the perfect wine

In a notable stride toward more sensory-integrated technology, a team of researchers from the Technical University of Denmark (DTU), the University of Copenhagen, and Caltech have found a way to imbue AI algorithms with the sense of taste, allowing them to provide personalised wine recommendations based on a your flavour preferences. While there are already a number of apps out there that use AI to help you pick your next bottle of wine, their recommendations are typically based on labels and reviews rather than our individual taste preferences, which tends to limit their effectiveness. To resolve this issue and improve their algorithm’s precision, the researchers asked 256 wine enthusiasts to sample and sort an array of wines based on their taste perceptions. This data was then paired with the Vivino app’s large database of wine labels and user reviews. Next, they created an algorithm that can help people identify wines that align with their flavour preferences, as well as their budgets.

According to Professor Serge Belongie, one of the study’s co-authors, incorporating human sensory experiences into AI systems has the potential to significantly enhance their precision, allowing them to better understand and anticipate people’s taste preferences. “We can see that when the algorithm combines the data from wine labels and reviews with the data from the wine tastings, it makes more accurate predictions of people’s wine preferences than when it only uses the traditional types of data in the form of images and text. So, teaching machines to use human sensory experiences results in better algorithms that benefit the user”, he says. This could have profound implications not only for the wine industry but for the food sector as a whole, paving the way towards healthier, more sustainable food production. According to researchers, this innovative approach would not be restricted to wines alone but could easily be applied to almost any other type of food or beverage, resulting in a wide range of promising applications, from personalised food recipes and product recommendations to customised meal plans.

“If you’re going to be able to print food, you’ll need to be able to interact with the machine on how tasty you want this food to be”.

Yuval Klein, the founder and CEO of MAMAY Technologies

This algorithm ensures that every meal you eat is perfect

Wouldn’t it be great if every meal you ate could deliver the perfect balance of flavours to tantalise your taste buds? This is precisely what the Israel-based startup MAMAY Technologies aims to do by developing an algorithm that uses AI to analyse a food or beverage product’s ‘objective’ taste, including its sweetness, saltiness, and sourness levels. According to Yuval Klein, the founder and CEO of MAMAY Technologies, the company uses a chemical process called high-performance liquid chromatography (HPLC) to measure the amount of natural and artificial sweeteners present in the molecules of different foods and drinks to determine their ‘sweetness profile’. The whole process is also repeated for saltiness, sourness, bitterness, and umami, after which each item is assigned a so-called ‘val’ number on MAMAY’s proprietary Taste GAGE scale that signifies its sensory impact, or how sweet, salty, sour, bitter, and savoury it really is.

The company recently established a partnership with Chinese companies that prepare food for school children using automated systems. Using MAMAY’s technology, these companies will now be able to log each child’s individual taste preferences and then use this information to personalise their meals, ensuring that each dish resonates with the child’s unique taste bud profile. “When a robot makes pasta, we can make it differently — less spicy, more spicy”, explains Klein. “And every kid should get the one that they like”. Klein believes that personalised food is the future, and he wants his company to be at the forefront of this emerging trend. “If you’re going to be able to print food, you’ll need to interact with the machine on how tasty you want this food to be”, he adds.

An electronic tongue gives robots a sense of taste

Despite significant advances made in the field of artificial intelligence in recent years, the technology still fails to accurately reflect the psychological aspect of human intelligence, particularly our emotional intelligence. One of the best examples of the role emotional intelligence plays in our lives involves our eating habits. These are greatly influenced by a complex interplay between our physiological necessities and psychological impulses rather than being driven solely by the need to satiate our hunger. This is most evident when someone, despite having no physiological need to eat after already enjoying a substantial meal, finds themselves unable to resist a piece of chocolate cake or some other food they love. Although brain mechanisms that govern hunger perception and appetite control are still shrouded in mystery, recent advances in brain imaging have provided us with a better understanding of how taste is processed in the gustatory cortex. For example, we now know that taste receptors on the human tongue translate chemical data into electrical impulses, which are then conveyed to the brain via a complex network of neurons, allowing us to perceive and discern flavours.

Mimicking this process, a team of researchers from Penn State University managed to create a rudimentary biomimetic system that consists of an electronic ‘tongue’ and an electronic ‘gustatory cortex’, essentially allowing robots to replicate the human capacity to taste. To make this possible, the researchers paired chemitransistors, sensors capable of detecting gas and chemical molecules, with memtransistors that can mimic neuronal activity. This enabled the system to simulate the sense of taste across the full spectrum of primary taste sensations — sweet, salty, sour, bitter, and umami. According to Saptarshi Das, associate professor of engineering science and mechanics at Penn State, this innovative technology could have a wide range of useful applications. We could, for instance, use it to provide personalised, AI-curated diets that not only satisfy the person’s emotional cravings but also help them lose weight, or to offer bespoke culinary experiences in dining establishments.

Your next chef could be an AI

As the urgency to address climate change intensifies, the global food industry is facing mounting pressure to reduce its environmental footprint. A critical part of this challenge involves transitioning toward more sustainable practices, including the adoption of plant-based diets. One of the companies at the forefront of this movement is the Chilean startup The Not Company (NotCo), which recently unveiled a new solution that has the potential to revolutionise our eating habits — an intelligent chef named Guiseppe. A far cry from your typical chef, Guiseppe uses AI to replicate the taste, colour, texture, and nutrients of popular animal-based foods using nothing but plant-based ingredients. He does this by sifting through a comprehensive database of plants until he finds the right combination of ingredients that will allow him to recreate a particular food’s taste and texture. “He finds unusual links between plants that he has previously classified at a molecular, nutritional, sensorial, and physiochemical level”, says Pablo Zamora, the co-founder of NotCo.

Despite its impressive computational abilities, Giuseppe is not immune to errors. For example, he once managed to create milk that tasted just like the real thing, with one notable difference — it was pink. To make sure this doesn’t happen again, each recipe Guiseppe comes up with is analysed by a team of real chefs and scientists. If they detect any problems, the recipe is returned to Giuseppe for further adjustments until everything is the way it’s supposed to be. By creating plant-based alternatives to some of the world’s most popular foods that are both environmentally friendly and affordable, NotCo hopes to usher in a new era in the food industry, where we will be able to continue to eat the food we love without harming the natural environment in the process. Some of the products released by NotCo so far include NotMilk, a pea-based alternative to cow’s milk, NotChicken, and NotBurger, plant-based alternatives to animal meat.

Closing thoughts

As AI becomes more adept at understanding and recreating complex flavours, it unlocks new possibilities for personalising nutrition and enhancing gastronomic experiences. From AI-tasting robots that can discern subtle flavour notes to sensory technologies that can predict individual taste preferences, we are on the brink of a new era where the food we eat can be tailored to our unique needs and desires while also addressing larger issues, such as health, sustainability, and food scarcity. This synergy between AI and taste could redefine the culinary arts and lead to a more accessible and varied food culture. However, this new horizon also raises intriguing questions: As AI reshapes our culinary experiences, how might it alter our cultural relationship with food? And what new flavours and food traditions might emerge from an AI-influenced palate? As we move into this brave new world of taste, we are invited to ponder the future of food, one byte at a time.

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