Welcome to The Dispatch, a new monthly column where we’ll share our findings on recipes, markets, products, ingredients and more from Dubai and Tucson.
In recent weeks ChatGPT has been in my news feed for several reasons. Academic institutions were the first group to flag its possible misuse by students. As someone who often procrastinated as a graduate student, I see its charm. But producing essays, academic or not, isn’t the only thing this tool can do. I am not a tech geek, and I cannot for the life of me read or write code. But I cook, and I read and write about food. As your fellow human being I get hungry often and crave food that can excite, nourish and often be a source of comfort. In that pursuit I am amongst millions of users “googling” about food – from looking for conversion charts to recipes to exploring “restaurants near me.” This got me thinking about striking up a conversation about food with the newest toy on the internet. That is the origin of Food Talk with ChatGPT.
What is ChatGPT?
Before I share how those conversations went, let’s learn a little more about ChatGPT. If you’ve done a lot of life’s essential things online, then you’ve already conversed with a chatbot. Tiny windows that pop up on a website asking if they might help you find what you are looking for are examples of chatbots. These as well as virtual personal assistants such as Alexa and Siri, are all dependent on Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Natural Language Processing (NLP) to make sense of our inputs – text or voice.
AI is already in your hands
By training algorithms (all these tools are after all some form of code/programming) on large data sets, companies have worked to increase efficiency in customer service workflows and also launch self-driving cars. Yes, you read that right. Cars that offer self-driving or park assist features are doing so with the help of AI. Another example of AI is something we rely on everyday – word suggestions, whether in a word processor, messaging app, email or Google Search. Each time a word correction comes up (auto-correct can be my nemesis sometimes!) that is artificial intelligence at work. And, it hasn’t destroyed us. While Hollywood tropes about AI making humans obsolete abound, the film industry itself implements and relies heavily on AI tools. From grand worlds in the Marvel Cinematic Universe to de-aging actors, movies are as much about the tech behind them as the script and acting.
Let’s not forget, humans have agency over AI tools
The proliferation of AI tools has raised other questions with real world implications. Image generation tools have received some heat from artists and publishers for infringing their copyrights. There is confusion about dealing with this technology and whether a new lawsuit will result in any action or change remains to be seen. All that to say, the birth of AI and its subfield NLP, happened because of human ingenuity. Humans have a stake in the origin and progress of this technology as well as in the rules that will eventually govern it. It’s not all gloom and doom. While researchers and firms fine tune their algorithms, we can test what’s open to us and have a little fun, responsibly.
Food talk with ChatGPT
And that’s precisely what I’ve been doing. ChatGPT’s interface is reminiscent of chatrooms of yore like Yahoo! and MSN (Microsoft). You are presented with a plain screen with initials for each user and a text box. At the outset, Open AI is careful to point out the purpose of ChatGPT. It is meant to be a research tool and is still learning, so users are asked to be respectful and report any inaccuracies they might find.
Feeling hungry, can ChatGPT help?
My motivation to converse with the chatbot was culinary. I began Kitchenpostcards as a way to combine two creative skills – writing and cooking. As a new expat, still grappling with the move, cooking food from home was more than an exercise in nostalgia; it provided much needed comfort. With the internet on its fingertips (or its brain, however you’d want to characterize it), I thought ChatGPT might become another way to search for recipes. Google search is good enough, but can this chatbot add something more?
It did and it didn’t.
I’ve chatted with ChatGPT a few times. Twice out of those, I asked a version of the question in the video above: “Can you write a recipe that evokes childhood nostalgia for a South Asian person?” While the responses weren’t incorrect they presented an example of a persistent problem in how we perceive, propagate and stereotype cultural practices. As is so often the case, certain foods, clothing, music, movies from a dominant section become emblematic of a nation or region’s entire culture.
A work in progress
South Asia is huge! It encompasses eight countries from Afghanistan in the west to Bangladesh in the east. Though dominated by the Indian subcontinent, South Asia is more than that. And within India too, each region has its own comfort food. Much of Indian cuisine exported to the West is drawn heavily from northern India with a mishmash of Punjabi, Awadhi and Mughlai food.
So when ChatGPT spat out two recipes – Maa ki Dal and Aloo Paratha – that are stereotypically identified as Punjabi (from the state of Punjab), the Punjabi in me felt a tinge of pride followed by disappointment. I do have to add that for Aloo ka Paratha it qualified its response by stating that it is “a popular breakfast dish in many parts of South Asia, particularly in India and Pakistan.” Which is true. But I was expecting a bit more. A follow up question or two about what I was in the mood for or which cuisine I’d like to try. If it asked where I was from, I would’ve been creeped out. So there are limits to how much I’d like to share. Kevin Roose of the New York Times chanced upon ChatGPT’s emotional and slightly maniacal tendencies while testing Bing’s new integration with the chatbot. (Fun fact: The Bing chatbot also goes by the name Sydney.)
ChatGPT is better at some questions than others
Before I began this back and forth about comfort food from South Asia, I had simply asked for something comforting to eat and like all food delivery apps, ChatGPT asked what I was in the mood for. I wrote, “something from southern India.” I was presented with a range of options in response, quoted below and a tidy sign off to go looking for it myself. Sassy? Maybe. Practical? Probably, yes. Unlike Kevin Roose of NYT, I wasn’t testing its limits. But the next time it exhibits any emotion or tries to emotionally blackmail me, I will share it with you.
“Southern Indian cuisine is known for its use of spices and flavorful dishes. Some popular options include:
- Idli: A steamed rice cake that is often served with sambar (a lentil-based stew) and chutney.
- Dosa: A crispy crepe made from fermented rice and lentils, often filled with potatoes and served with chutney and sambar.
- Sambar: A lentil-based stew that is often served with rice.
- Vada: A deep-fried doughnut-shaped snack made from lentils.
- Biryani: A flavorful rice dish that is often made with chicken or lamb, spices, and vegetables.
- Curry: A dish made with a variety of spices, usually including turmeric, cumin, and coriander, along with coconut milk or yogurt.
- Appam: A fermented rice and coconut milk crepe.
These are some popular dishes of southern India, you can try them in any Indian restaurant or even try making them at home.”
ChatGPT will only be as good as its diet
This tool, like search engines, is scraping the internet for answers. When it shared the recipe for Aloo ka Paratha, it read eerily like the one on this blog. Though there were inconsistencies. Even the recipe for Maa ki Dal was incorrect because it chose the wrong lentils to begin with. How well the chatbot does going forward to assist us in research will depend on what’s out there in the ether along the rules of its algorithm. As many others have found, in its current avatar inconsistencies abound.
Will we play a role in shaping this new AI?
Which raises a question about content on the internet. Clearly there is a lot out there about food. It is one of the most searched items worldwide. But representation and variety might be lacking. How we frame what we eat, not just for our Instagram grids, but in the detail of place, origin, its significance – cultural, environmental, will determine how much more we learn about the world, if that is the ultimate aim of this new AI. As for world dominance, AI and its subfields are already ubiquitous. If you want to take a dim view of humanity, you can do so. On the bright side, it is humankind that made AI possible and will remain in control for a long long time. Sentience isn’t imminent.
For now we can laugh at its expense and raise issues that will make it better as well as fight for keeping some parts of our labor off limits. I know I will try asking it more about food soon. But will it be my default search option? Far from it. For now search engines and my own mind’s repository will have to do.
Will Sydney fall in love with you? Read the full transcript of Kevin Roose’s conversation with ChatGPT.