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Nothing Off-Pudding About It

Our AI-generated pudding kids love,
Made from the vegetables they hate

Can artificial intelligence succeed in making kids eat their vegetables?

In all the land, you will be hard pressed to find one as steadfast, resolute, and passionate about a cause as a child who refuses to eat vegetables.

One survey found that 74% of children don’t have a stomach for the greens, which for me isn’t hard to believe as a former-vegetable-hater-slash-former-child. And while many do outgrow the dislike, certainly more can be done to help children get the vitamins and nutrients they need from the all-important green blocks of the food pyramid.

In fact, many have tried disguising vegetables within various shapes and forms, in the hopes that they would appeal more to children. But what if we could go one step further and turn vegetable-based dishes from being a part of a meal, to being a treat?

Vegetables to pudding: From “fuss” to “plus”

Setting out to accomplish that very goal are Kagome and NEC, who started a joint project with the goal of turning vegetables into something children look forward to eating.

It was decided that the form the vegetables would take would be a well-loved, signature treat for Japanese children: pudding.

In order to find a way to make vegetables and pudding compatible, NEC’s link prediction AI technology was used to derive a list of one hundred pudding combinations made from the vegetables ranked most-hated by children. (You can view a full list of the hundred puddings recommended by the AI including the AI’s reasoning at this link. The site is in Japanese.)

NEC’s white-box AI clearly shows the reasoning behind the recipe combinations. For example, Korean-style tofu soup includes three ingredients: tofu (A), chili powder (B), and potatoes (C). If A and B are a good combination, and so is B and C, then A and C might also be good? Our AI proposes combinations that seem to be compatible even if they are not related.

The end result: a line of pudding dubbed “AI(愛)のプリン”. This translates to “The Pudding of Love”, where the Japanese character for “love”(愛) is read as “AI”. And while the pun loses some flavor when translated, the pudding itself was guaranteed to be quite a treat.

“Eggplant ranked #1 most hated on a survey done by Kagome,” shared Noritaka Shimura, a Lead Data Scientist and Team Lead on the AI Pudding Project at NEC. “I think bell peppers are notorious for being hated by children, but on a ranked list of 30 vegetables, eggplant was most disliked due to its texture.”

Noritaka Shimura
Lead Data Scientist and Team Lead

Shimura further explained that the final pudding recipes were perfected by a pride of the pudding culinary world, chef Hiroshi Tokoro. He polished and perfected six pudding recipes which were sold at a few exclusive outlets, and of course taste tested by many children.

The six recipes are: tomato & cream cheese, corn & yoghurt, carrot & white wine, pumpkin & raisins, spinach & coconut, and potato & tofu.

The latter two are currently in season and on sale, so to satisfy both our curiosity and tastebuds, the NEC Insights team tried the two pudding flavors and filmed our reactions. If you’re doubtful as to whether the puddings taste good, check out our honest thoughts in the video below!

The proof was in the pudding

The potato & tofu pudding caught us off guard because we were not expecting the main flavor profile to be curry. However, Japanese children love curry rice, so we can see it being a popular option, but more as an appetizer than a dessert.

“Potatoes, tofu, and soy milk are main feature ingredients in this pudding, and while curry might sound like a strange add-in, curries and stews often feature potatoes, so that combination is not that bizarre once you think about it,” shared Shimura.

On the other hand, the spinach & coconut flavor pudding was a big hit with the team. For some of us from Southeast Asia, and the mellow yet sweet coconut flavor was oddly nostalgic and homely. Of course, even the locals who never grew up in a tropical climate found the pudding sweet and oh-so-delicious, and we all agreed that we would definitely eat it on a regular basis if it became widely available.

But of course, the real test was whether or not the target audience would like the pudding. Roughly 30 students at Ritsumeikan Elementary School were offered the pudding, and an overwhelming majority of 29 students not only tried the pudding, but polished off their pudding bottles with little issue. I think it’s fair to say that we can count that one as a long overdue win for vegetables.

Pudding it to good use

Although we have achieved sweet victory, there is still a lot more we can do. Shimura and his team are already looking at making use of other dessert types, including mushipan (steamed bread), another sweet delicacy in Japan.

The link prediction AI technology behind AI Pudding is also being used across various areas of society. It operates by discovering hidden relationships from data that expresses connections between people, things, and events. We are exploring use cases across a variety of areas, including drug discovery and human resource matching, where new graduates can be placed in roles where they can truly shine.

Perhaps most importantly, Shimura spoke in agreement with NEC’s approach to artificial intelligence, “AI Analytics For Good”, and how he hopes AI technology can change our world for the better.

“NEC is aiming for a world where everyone can live happily while solving problems together. I think in the modern day many people are afraid or wary of AI technology, because they have the impression that they might lose their jobs to AI, etc. We would like to show the world that AI can be something that supports and enriches our lives, and can bring smiles to our faces.”