Can AI reduce the world’s food waste?

Here is a shocking statement: “We waste 1.6 billion tons of food every year while 25 million starve and another billion are malnourished.” It should make us all pause to consider.

However, as John Koetsier writes, there is a Berlin startup with a possible AI solution to the complex problem of food waste.

It is a complicated situation because of the vast numbers of farmers involved in the global supply chain. As Koetsier says, “Tens of millions of farms feed millions of grocery stores and restaurants, which in turn supply almost eight billion people their daily food.” Add to that the transport companies, wholesalers, distributors, processors, and delivery companies and you have a massive web that needs to communicate effectively, and it has to do its best to preserve perishable products. And that is what startup company SPRK.global, is trying to fix.

The company was among eight winners of the Extreme Tech Challenge. Some 2,400 entrants sought to deliver solutions to global challenges and SPRK got the judge’s approval. Its goal is to “use AI to understand the flow of food and reduce waste.” Its theory is that this should stop over-production of food and reduce hunger at the same time.

SPRK’s CEOAlexander Piutti told Koetsier: ““Half of the food that gets produced gets wasted sooner or later. Once you move into understanding patterns — why there are food waste cases — you understand these patterns and see they come in a regular fashion … we can move from reactive to proactive, to anticipating, to predicting with a certain probability.”

Food waste is also an environmental problem. Overproduction uses resources like fuel, water, fertilizer and it increases greenhouse gas emissions, because when you waste food it goes to landfill and it emits more CO2.

How can AI fix food waste?

First it has to understand the supply chains and food economics. Oversupply is likely to be given to NGOs and food banks rather than competitors, and SPRK has to take account of this in the rules for its AI system. “Once we have these rules, we can inject them into the technology,” Piutti says. “The technology takes over … and matching between oversupply and demand … becomes more intelligent over time.”

It is starting with the foodbanks, which are typically low-tech. SPRK is building software for food banks that they can use to manage their own operations as well as collaborate with others, sharing being the key aim here. Piutti also says the software will give food banks better ways to access food at lower prices.

He said of the food banks: “They purchase food in a very normal fashion, they don’t get discounts. If we can connect the dots conceptually and say like, well, what if we distributed this food oversupply to the folks in need … they become a volume partner.” He says AI software can manage all this and save NGOs around 50% of the money they spend and reduce food waste at the same time.

As for SPRK, its CEO said, “Our vision is a world without food waste where everyone — including future generations — have enough to eat and thrive.” It’s an admirable goal!

Technology will drive this decade

This year the global pandemic has forced most of the world to rely more on technology. With more people working from home — something that is almost certain to become the new normal for those who can perform their job remotely –plus the need for more apps to assist with work and in monitoring public health, there has surely never been a bigger opportunity for the tech sector.

Bernard Marr in Forbes has identified 25 ways in which technology will define this decade, including an area I am particularly interested in, which is Artificial Intelligence. This he believes, and I agree, will be a driving force behind many of the other tech solutions.

AI will be central to the development of the Internet of Things, which is the ever-growing number of “smart” devices and objects that are connected to the Internet. We will also see a boom in ‘wearables’ that will go way beyond the current fitness trackers. There will be an industry dedicated to “wearable technology designed to improve human performance and help us live healthier, safer, more efficient lives.”

Big Data refers is another feature of the next ten years. It refers to the massive amount of data created worldwide and we’ll see advance augmented analytics emerge to deal with it, supported by AI.

Blockchain is another important tool that could revolutionise many parts of business, particularly as it facilitates trusted transactions, as Marr says.

For those of you who are of a sci-fi frame of mind, there will be “digitally extended realities. These will include virtual reality, augmented reality, and mixed reality, all aimed at enhancing the virtual experience.

The concept of “digital twins” is also pretty futuristic. Marr explains: “A digital twin is a digital copy of an actual physical object, product, process, or ecosystem. This innovative technology allows us to try out alterations and adjustments that would be too expensive or risky to try out on the real physical object.” The potential applications are numerous, from the arts to science and more.

I’m sure you’ve guessed that there will be more Alexas and Siris, with chatbots being our first point of customer service for many brands, and facial recognition will grow, although the regulations about its use do need to be ironed out.

Many of us are also waiting for the quantum computers to be unleashed, and that could happen before 2030.

You can read about all the other opportunities at Marr’s Forbes article (linked above), or in his book, Tech Trends in Practice: The 25 Technologies That Are Driving The 4th Industrial Revolution.

Prepare yourself for what’s coming!

Top Risks in 2019

According to the Eurasia Group, a consultancy founded by Ian Bremmer, the global geopolitical environment is right now the most dangerous that it has been for many decades. So what is likely to impact on businesses, regional economies and society during 2019? There are around 10 areas of concern for us all.

Bad Seeds

There used to be an Australian band called The Bad Seeds, but we’re not talking about them. What the term ‘bad seeds’ means in this instance, is this: decision makers are so obsessed with an array of global crises in a world without trued global leadership, that they are allowing a range of future risks to take root and germinate, but these future risks are the ‘bad seeds.’ For example, the future of the European Union, the WTO and the relationship between Russia and China are negative.

US-China relations

The US leadership used to try and keep things smoothed over, but with Trump in office that approach has been dumped. Expect to see more confrontations between the two, especially in the areas of technology, economics and security.

Cyber Power

The US is going to exert its use of cyber power more seriously this year. However, it’s likely to backfire on it rather than create a system of global deterrence.

Populism in Europe

Europe is holding elections in May and it is likely that we will see more eurosceptics win seats. We have seen the rise of eurosceptics in the last two years, the UK and Italy being two prominent examples. These populists blame Brussels for their domestic problems and now they are winning support at home by promising to flout EU rules, or leaving the EU. They will win more seats and undermine the ability of the EU to function.

US domestic politics

The government has been closed down since before Christmas 2018. This year will bring more chaos and volatility to US domestic politics.

Reduced innovation

There will be a reduced level of investment in driving technological development. Eurasia Group believes this will be driven by concerns about security, privacy and economics, as leading countries “put up barriers to protect their emerging tech champions.”

Mexico

The new Mexican president Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador –or AMLO—wishes to improve Mexico by taking it back several decades. His strategy includes more spending and poor policies that are more interventionist. While Mexico was ahead of other Latin American countries, expect to see it look more like them this year.

Ukraine

Putin wants Ukraine to be within Russia’s sphere of influence. It is likely to interfere in Ukrainian elections this year, which will pose a problem, for Ukraine and leaders in the European Union who will have to decide how to respond.

Nigeria

This year Nigeria is about to hold one of its biggest and most fiercely contended elections since the country became a democracy in 1999. Neither of the two leading candidates have anything to offer the country, or policies that will reduce its problems.

Brexit

At the time of writing, the Parliament at Westminster is about to vote on the Withdrawal Agreement negotiated by Prime Minister Theresa May. Neither those who want to leave the EU, nor those who want to remain in the EU like it. Nobody knows what will happen when the deal is most likely voted down, but it is going to be an even bigger shambles in the UK throughout 2019 and that will affect the rest of Europe as well.

 

Tech innovation needs to find a balance in 2019

2018 put the spotlight on technological innovation, much of it venturing into uncharted territory where regulations will be needed before long. Amidst all the newcomers and startups, one old friend stands out as becoming more and more integral to our way of life, and that is the Internet.

Its reach into every industry is unstoppable, and as we move on from an app-centred era, there is going to be more engagement between policymakers and the technology innovators.

Steve Case, in his excellent thought piece at Medium, sums up the scenario:

“Investors will need to understand policy as well. In the Internet’s First Wave, the focus was on technology risk — can they build it. In the Second Wave, the key risk factor became market risk — there was little doubt it could be built, but considerable concern over which of the many app competitors would break through. In the Third Wave, policy risk will be front and center — can the entrepreneurs navigate the complex regulatory waters to successfully bring their product or service to market.”

Indeed, investors, entrepreneurs and governments will all be trying to find the right balance between regulation and innovation, as Case points out. This is necessary for the protection of society whilst also being open-minded about the potential of technology to improve life.

But what happened in the tech world during 2018 that has brought the issue of regulation versus innovation into focus? First there were the revelations about Facebook’s use of user data, which brought down on it the wrath of governments, as well as users. This is likely to mean the emergence of regulations to rein Facebook in.

There were also some serious data breaches affecting consumers. Privacy and security are no longer a given, which means consumers are no longer as confident when using online service providers.

Self-driving cars were a great story until a pedestrian got killed. They are still on the agenda for development, but now “innovators and policymakers need to work together to establish practices for safety and security (including cybersecurity),” Case suggests.

Space exploration got more interesting as it suddenly broke out of being controlled by NASA and other government-related agencies. This sector went commercial with SpaceX, and it is an exciting opportunity for innovation, but again we will need regulations for commercial ventures that protect the sector without stifling innovation.

2019 will be a year of finding the balance in these and other tech sectors.