BuzzFeed’s Botatouille chatbot puts an artificial intelligence spin on food advice

BuzzFeed turned the rise of social media into a digital media company worth over a billion dollars at its peak. But when the tech giants behind the social platforms moved away from publishing, BuzzFeed’s valuation plummeted.

To bounce back, BuzzFeed is once again turning to a new technology: artificial intelligence.

The company has tried various experiments since announcing its intention to integrate AI a few months ago, adopting the technology more than most publishers. On Tuesday, BuzzFeed introduced its most ambitious offering yet, a free chatbot called Botatouille (no relation to Pixar’s murine chef), which offers recipe recommendations from Tasty, BuzzFeed’s food brand.

Botatouille is built using technology that drives OpenAI’s popular ChatGPT program, customized with Tasty recipes and user data.

Rainy day? Botatouille recommends winter chili or lentil soup. Feeling lonely? Botatouille offers chocolate chip cookies or a vegetable curry. Botatouille could also recommend the shepherd’s pie, which he joked was his mother’s recipe.

“Moving from kind of a crumbling social wave to a growing wave of generative AI, for me, is an exciting transition,” said Jonah Peretti, the company’s chief executive. “And I think there are things we could definitely learn to make sure we get more sustainable value from a technology trend.”

Although BuzzFeed is among the first media companies to experiment with artificial intelligence, many more are considering how to adapt. Executives from Bloomberg, Insider and The New York Times are all weighing the upside potential against the risks for their existing businesses.

Possible pitfalls include loss of search engine traffic as AI-powered chatbots respond to search queries. And some companies that use artificial intelligence for content creation have already published articles full of errors.

Mr. Peretti shut down BuzzFeed News last month, but going forward, he said, BuzzFeed plans to experiment with AI to improve its news business, which is now curated under its HuffPost brand.

Peretti said that could include using artificial intelligence to help create headlines for search engines or find ways to tell certain stories.

Botatouille uses technology that drives OpenAI’s popular ChatGPT program, customized with Tasty recipes and user data.Credit…Michelle Groskopf for The New York Times

But he said he didn’t anticipate a future in which artificial intelligence would be used to replace HuffPost reporters.

“Even if you were, say, an evil CEO trying to replace all journalists with AI, you would fail very badly,” Peretti said. “It wouldn’t work on the business side.”

He said he applied several lessons from BuzzFeed’s uneven relationship with social media to his experiments with artificial intelligence.

When BuzzFeed used social media to grow its audience, it didn’t always make profitability a priority. The business grew rapidly but has since fallen on harder times. He is now worth nearly $90 million, a small fraction of his 2016 high of $1.7 billion. The shutdown of BuzzFeed News has affected dozens of jobs.

The company is now focused on building a sustainable business from the start, Peretti said. BuzzFeed plans to use artificial intelligence to sell subscriptions to its users by providing personalized services and personalized interactions on offers like Botatouille, he said.

“We are much more focused on monetization, and we focused on it much earlier than we were back then,” Mr. Peretti said.

A big question for BuzzFeed: Will Botatouille work?

Before attending a party on Sunday night, I asked the chatbot to recommend a cocktail recipe to go.

“Hi! Looks like you’re ready to party!” Botatouille responded in his usual chipper tone – and added a warning to drink responsibly. “I recommend the ‘Boozy Bubbly Sherbet Punch.’ It’s a fun and fruity drink perfect for a party.

Botatouille then shared the recipe, a cohesive mix of vodka, champagne and fruit juice from concentrate, topped with a scoop of rainbow sorbet.

Later, I asked Botatouille to suggest meals for a laid-off digital media worker. At first he struggled to give an answer. “Oops. Something went wrong,” he said.

Then he had an idea.

“Hmm, sounds like you might be feeling a little depressed. How about recommending a meal that will lift your spirits? said Botatouille. “For a laid-off digital media worker, I suggest trying one skillet chicken and veggie meal prep 2 ways.”


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