One smart cookie: Artificial intelligence helps perfect a gluten-free treat

Coming up with the ultimate cookie recipe can take even a seasoned baker hours of trial and error, all the more so if her target audience has specialized needs — say, a diet that’s vegan or gluten-free.

Complicating matters is the fact that most cooks bring with them into the kitchen a set of biases as to what spices and flavor combinations will best work their magic. When Jeanette Harris was developing a chocolate chip cookie recipe for her Gluten Free Goat Bakery in Garfield, for example, the thought of adding cardamom — a pungent spice used mostly in Indian cooking — never crossed her mind.

She certainly never thought about using technology to fine-tune her list of ingredients and baking methods, despite having been a guest cook with Google Pittsburgh chef John Karbowski at Kitchen Sync, the company’s teaching kitchen for Google employees.

Talk about not using your (smart) cookie.

Using artificial intelligence technology developed by software engineers at the Bakery Square office (and tested by Mr. Karbowski), researchers were able to determine that two teaspoons of the spice was exactly the right amount needed to create a killer cookie.

How good? The resulting Chocolate Chip and Cardamon Cookie was trotted out at a press event at the bakery on Monday. It’s chewy and flavorful, although it’s not your grandma’s Nestle Toll House chocolate chip cookies. But for a gluten-free product made with brown rice flour and flaxseed meal, it was delicious.

It also demonstrated that AI isn’t just the provenance of big corporations, but an emerging technology that everyone — even a small-scale baker — can appreciate and benefit from.

An ordinary computer program is not much more than a dumb machine. It accepts certain inputs, makes calculations, and then spits out the results of those calculations, without concern for whether the information is relevant.  Artificial intelligence programs, conversely, help computers “learn” from their efforts.

Here’s how Google’s AI “cookie experiment” works: After deciding what cookie to bake and having people taste and rate them, that  feedback is fed back into Google. The results build a complex model of what factors make a tasty cookie, and suggest new recipes to either explore totally new territory (what if we tried tons of cayenne pepper), or to narrow in on a successful recipe and tweak it slightly to perfect it (“what if this highly rated recipe had just a touch more chocolate?”). Eventually it finds a recipe people agree is pretty tasty. 

The team had already done one cookie experiment last year with a classic chocolate chip cookie recipe using orange extract and cayenne with some “really cool results,” said Mr. Karbowski. So for their sophomore attempt this March, they decided to push the envelope even further by not only going gluten-free (no gluten or wheat products) with Ms. Harris’ help, but also adding a spice that was as polarizing as it was strong-tasting: cardamon. 

The team started with a recipe Ms. Harris had been playing around with for a while, but hadn’t yet perfected. They chose Nabisco’s Chips Ahoy as the control cookie, because as Daniel Golovin, senior staff software engineer on the Google Brain team put it, “it’s not too hard to beat Chips Ahoy.”

With the computer’s help, the team not only quickly got to a point where it could taste-test 12 different recipes in about 2 hours on a sliding scale, but the cookies themselves got dramatically better each time. So much better, in fact, that it had to switch to a classic Betty Crocker recipe and add additional scores at the high end to give testers more resolution.

Most chefs and bakers,  Ms. Harris says, have internal biases and ideas about tried and true ways. The fact she initially balked at the idea of using so much cardamom is a prime example. “But it was delicious,” she says. And being able to collaborate on improving a recipe through technology was a fascinating experience. 

“It pushed me out of my comfort zone,” she says.

In showing people a real-world application for AI, researchers say they’re hoping to highlight it in a way that  everyone can appreciate and get a taste for  the benefits of what it can do. 

“It’s going to be a tool that changes society,” said software engineer Greg Kochanski. 

Gluten Free Goat Bakery and Cafe (4905 Penn Ave., Pittsburgh, PA 15224) will sell the “Smart Cookie” during the Christmas holiday season for $2.50 a piece.

Gretchen McKay:, 412-263-1419 or on Twitter @gtmckay.



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