The science of food: How GE is using Big Data to make sense of what you’re eating


It would be a crime to visit Austin without sampling the local barbecue here, so we stopped by General Electric’s BBQ Research Lab at SXSW to see how the team is using GE technology to make sense of all things food.

Greeting the entrance of the outdoor “lab” is the 12-foot BBQ smoker which contains multiple sensors to record temperature, humidity, smoke velocity and meat temperature in real time.

GE said by applying its technology in a generalized use case like cooking, it hopes to demonstrate the power of sensors and data by creating the scientifically perfect rack of ribs and brisket.

You can see how the numbers change depending on what the team does with the smoker. For example, sticking another firewood into the pit may increase the humidity as the water inside the wood evaporates.

By calculating this data in real time, the researchers can adapt the cooking temperature to ensure the meats are not overcooked.

ge bbq The science of food: How GE is using Big Data to make sense of what youre eating

How does it taste?

GE doesn’t want you to just eat the most scientifically-perfect BBQ at SXSW, it wants to measure how that makes you feel from the neural level. In a separate section of the lab, GE offers a sample plate of three foods (savory, tart, sweet) for you to try while wearing a Muse brain-sensing headband. The team hopes that by tracking your electroencephalogram (EEG) levels as you eat, they can see your subconscious reaction to various kinds of food.

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As a lab rat in GE’s experiment, I chowed through the food samples and noticed that although my brain activities stayed stagnant (perhaps I was less hungry), my EEG levels peaked when I started asking people around me questions about what they’re experiencing.

After noticing the activity, I tested this theory out again by asking several questions in a row. You can see that particular segment of high brain activities in the GIF GE put together below.

Whether this actually relates to anything remains to be seen, but it’s definitely an interesting detail. As for the ribs? It could do with a little bit of barbecue sauce on top for extra spiciness, but the smokey flavor was amazingly powerful.

Luckily, GE also has another little area for you to customize your own barbecue sauce with various ingredients. If things get too hot, there are also treats from Austin’s Spun ice cream parlor made with liquid nitrogen to quickly cool you down.

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The GE BBQ Research Lab is a fun little tent if you’re interested in learning about the science of food. This portion of the festival may be known as SXSW Interactive, but the GE lab is the most hands-on we’ve felt since arriving in Texas.

Image credits: Aaron Rogosin, Lise Keeney