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When artificial intelligence fails in the kitchen

But the recipe and home cook win anyway.


If you need an extra hand in this kitchen this week, don’t turn to that fancy new voice-controlled speaker you got. At least, not yet.

Last week, my colleague Omar Gallaga and I tried to use a new feature on his Amazon Echo, aka Alexa, from Allrecipes.com, one of the largest online food hubs anywhere on the internet. Allrecipes also now prints a food magazine that I quite like and think would make a pretty great last-minute gift.

This fall, the company released an app for the Amazon Echo that would allow you to ask the device to read a recipe, or part of a recipe, so you could cook without having to look at your phone, computer or a regular old printout of the recipe.

Omar and I thought it would be fun to pick a recipe and try it out for a possible story on how you might start using artificial intelligence in the kitchen sometime soon. After a seriously disastrous attempt to cook the recipe using only the device, I can tell you that my kitchen won’t be relying on artificial intelligence anytime soon, at least not to dictate recipes.

After favoriting the recipe on his computer, Omar was able to successfully call up the audio version of recipe using only his voice. We did a trial run and were able to get the device to read off the ingredient list and the first instruction. It knows to pause until it hears you say, “Alexa, what’s the next step?,” which, in theory, seems incredibly useful to a tech-savvy cook.

But once we started our Facebook livestream video to try to share this experience with readers, we couldn’t get the functionality to work again. We tried dozens of different voice prompts and lots and lots of patience to get the device to pull up the appropriate recipe and give us commands so we could cook along with it, but we failed miserably. More accurately, the app on the device failed miserably.

Omar, who has more than a year of experience interacting with the Alexa interface, was just as frustrated as I was but was able to point out where the issue was with the Allrecipes app, called a “skill” in Amazon lingo — the problem was not the speaker itself or the AI that it uses for other tasks, such as playing music or podcasts or searching the internet for specific information.

Alexa’s current functionality to set timers or answer math problems (or convert, say, cups to gallons) would most certainly be helpful in the kitchen, but this recipe reading business isn’t even close to being useful. If anything, it might frustrate you so much that you throw the darn thing across the kitchen, but maybe that was just me.

Nonetheless, the 4 1/2-star picadillo recipe did not fail us. I followed the instructions on my phone, using the regular old website, and was pleased with the results. Lots of food cultures claim some version of picadillo, and the ones I like the best have lots of green olives and garlic. This version also has butternut squash, red wine and sazon seasoning, a product I didn’t have in my pantry but found under the Goya brand near the canned beans in the grocery store.

What technological successes and failures have you had in the kitchen? Nothing can replace the human-to-human learning we do in the kitchen, but what apps and devices should I check out if I would like an artificially intelligent culinary helper? Let me know at abroyles@statesman.com.

Picadillo

2 lb. lean ground beef

1/4 cup olive oil

1/2 onion, chopped

1/2 green bell pepper, seeded and chopped

2 Tbsp. minced garlic

2 (8 oz.) cans tomato sauce

2 cups water

1/2 cup red wine

3 Tbsp. hot sauce

1 (1.41 oz.) package sazon seasoning

1 Tbsp. chopped fresh parsley

1/2 tsp. garlic powder

1/2 tsp. onion powder

1/2 tsp. ground cumin

1/2 tsp. ground black pepper

1 whole bay leaf

3 oz. Spanish-style olives

1 small butternut squash, peeled and cut into cubes

Salt and pepper, to taste

Place ground beef in a large, deep saute pan over medium heat. Cook until browned, 5 to 10 minutes. Drain grease, and return the beef to the pan.

In a medium skillet over medium heat, heat the olive oil and then cook the onion, green bell pepper and garlic for 2 to 3 minutes or until fragrant. Add the sauteed onion mixture to the browned meat. Mix in the tomato sauce, water, red wine and hot sauce. Stir in sazon seasoning, parsley, garlic powder, onion powder, cumin, pepper and bay leaf. Bring to a simmer and cook for about 10 minutes, until the mixture starts to thicken.

Add the olives and squash. Simmer, stirring often, until the squash is fork tender, about 40 minutes. Season with salt and pepper and serve.

— Adapted from a recipe on AllRecipes.com



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