Artificial Intelligence

What Does AI Taste Like?

Coca-Cola often experiments with new flavors, and they’re usually flavors you can imagine, having tasted them before: vanilla, cherry, lemon. But the latest is called Y3000, a reference to the far-off year 3000, and one that Coca-Cola says was concocted with the help of, in some way, artificial intelligence. It smells like circus-peanut candies and tastes mostly like Coke.

The company says this soda was made to evoke a “positive future,” with a label that has “a futuristic feel,” due to its color palette of silver, violet, magenta, and cyan. The Coca-Cola logo on the Y3000 bottle is made of “fluid dot clusters that merge to represent the human connections of our future planet.” Customers can scan a QR code on the bottle to open a website that uses the AI model Stable Diffusion to turn photos of their surroundings into images with a similar color scheme and sci-fi aesthetics. In these images, the future looks sleek and very pink.

Y3000 is one of many recent Coke offerings promising a “flavor” that does not make a reference to anything like a known terrestrial taste. They have names such as “Ultimate” (Coca-Cola with “the electrifying taste of +XP,” which is a type of point you can accrue in video games) and “Soul Blast” (Coca-Cola that tastes like the Japanese anime Bleach). “Starlight” is “space flavored,” “Byte” tastes like “pixels,” “Move” tastes like “transformation.” “Dreamworld,” which is decorated with an M. C. Escher–like illustration, “taps into Gen Z’s passion for the infinite potential of the mind by exploring what a dream tastes like.” Coca-Cola did not respond to my requests for comment, but its senior director of global strategy, Oana Vlad, does recognize that some people might wonder what these flavors actually taste like. “We’re never really going to answer that question” in a “straightforward” way, she told CNN in June. But “the flavor profile is always, we say, 85 to 90 percent Coke.”

Coke is already an abstraction, some complicated combination of cinnamon and nutmeg and vanilla and citrus and secret things. Further abstracting it with “pixel” and “dream” flavors is a brilliant way to get a lot of attention. So is referencing AI—a logical next step after the company dabbled with NFTs. Since the introduction of ChatGPT 10 months ago, the world has become captivated by the technology and the maybe apocalyptic, maybe wonderful future that it promises. AI is suddenly everywhere, even in our cola. It makes no sense! Which is why we have to try it. “Their shenanigans are something that’s always interesting to us,” Sean O’Keefe, a professor of food science and technology at Virginia Tech, told me.

O’Keefe doesn’t drink soda, which he refers to as “flavored, colored sugar water.” But if the soda was designed by AI to taste like the future, what choice does he have? “I don’t buy Coke, but if I see Y3000, I’m gonna try it,” he said. Of course—that’s what I did too. There are a ton of foods and drinks that exist more to be sampled once and photographed for the internet than to be habitually consumed—see the Grimace Shake, which was all over TikTok this summer. Around the same time, my colleague Megan Garber wrote about mustard-flavored Skittles, describing the product as a “pseudo-snack—produced not to be eaten but to be talked about.” These limited-edition Skittles were, she explained from the site of a terrifying-sounding marketing event held in Washington, D.C., “nearly impossible for the average consumer to obtain.”

These kinds of products are really spectacles, the artist Allie Wist argues. Wist has a master’s degree in food studies, and much of her art has to do with food. In the description for last year’s Extinct Armoatorium, a plexiglass box filled with the smell of banana, dirt, and fungus, she wrote about the history of artificial banana flavoring, which, she wrote, is based on “the sweeter taste” of the Gros Michel banana, a cultivar that was wiped out in the 1950s by a fungus (although this origin is sometimes contested). Artificial banana is now more real than the banana it’s based on, she suggests, because the real banana doesn’t exist anymore. Wist cited Jean Baudrillard’s 1981 essay “The Precession of Simulacra,” and told me that “the real world is now actually produced through the simulation world of images, videos, and, I’d argue, artificial flavoring and processed foods.” Rainbow bagels, chips with fake smoke flavoring, future-flavored cola—all “represent a lifestyle or an aesthetic fantasy” more than they do eating, she said.

I smelled the AI Coke about 10 times before I tasted it, and felt a creeping sense of recognition. At first it reminded me of bubblegum, although that isn’t a real flavor either. It was a bit more like Juicy Fruit gum, a flavor that O’Keefe described as a combination of pineapple, banana, and citrus—familiar enough to avoid alienating consumers, which is key. “We have to consider capitalism’s role in this,” Wist said. “Capitalism removes any real value of exchange and contains no inherent interest in morality or purpose.” This is why a company that already sells billions of dollars of products a year might continue coming up with “ever more provocative flavors,” as she put it, including one that alludes to a point in the future after which many cities may no longer be habitable.

A few years ago, I went to a postapocalyptic dinner party hosted by the chef Jen Monroe. I had a bunch of nice, jellyfish-forward food and then a rectangle of gelatin. One-half of the gelatin rectangle was pink and strawberry-flavored and delicious. The other half was blue and disgusting. Many people spit it out. “I decided it’s okay to serve food you hate to make a point,” Monroe told me after. “That would be the most sci-fi avenue, where we’ve abandoned food as food altogether.” The dinner party was supposed to take place in 2047. It was sad, but it was also kind of fun. It made me think, At least we can sample something strange at the end of the world.