AI in food

Written by Emily Leeming
May 20, 2019

We explore three ways that Artificial Intelligence (AI) is making an impact in the food industry – from AI-powered bins helping to cut down on food waste, to robo-servers providing faster customer service. Will any of these concepts stick? Or is it simply a matter of when.

AI technology may seem like something out of a sci-fi movie, but it has subtly infiltrated our everyday lives in more discreet forms from Siri to Amazon shopping cart recommendations. In a nutshell, AI is a non-human brain that gathers, processes, and interprets a quantity of data that a human wouldn’t be able to manage in an entire lifetime. In the food industry some concepts are beginning to push the boundaries of the impossible. We looked at three ways that AI is attempting to kick-start a new digital food revolution. 

Is it time to bin the bin?

AI-powered bins

UK technology start-up Winnow Vision have recently launched an AI-powered bin that cuts down on food wastage. Using a camera and smart scales, this new-fangled waste disposer keeps track of what types of foods are being disposed of and how much – helping the environment and saving money. While a little help is needed to ‘train’ the bin by kitchen staff to recognise certain foods, it has already been installed in multiple Ikea stores around the world. Winnow estimates that with the 75 devices in action so far, about $30 million worth of food and 39,000 tonnes of CO2 has been saved. That’s a heck of a lot already.

Could robotics remove the artistry from cooking?

Flavour pairing and recipe generation

What would you think if your favourite weeknight microwave meal was developed by a machine and not a chef? While the smartest algorithms aren’t quite there yet, some big industry names are working on it. If it all goes well, it won’t be too far-fetched to think that AI will play a major part in developing the foods we eat today. If a computer could distil the knowledge of the world’s greatest chefs, flavour scientists and food experts, one can only imagine the potential for new exciting foods and flavours. Even those that humans may have never even considered. In the USA, IBM’s artificial intelligence labs have been collaborating with McCormick & Company, known for their range of dried cooking spices, to develop the team’s first AI-generated food products. The algorithm even takes into consideration decades of market research on customer preferences, mood and cultural backgrounds. 

When a new food product can take months to go from concept to market-ready, with sometimes more than 150 iterations – there’s huge potential for speed and cost reduction while precision targeting their customer demographic through AI. And it doesn’t have to start in the cooking pot, how about from the seed? AI could even help farmers engineer more nutritious and flavoursome crops by creating optimal growing conditions. Sentient, a company in the USA, uses AI to create ‘recipes’ to grow perfect food by monitor the effect of changes in UV light, salinity, health and water stress. 

Robots are already in use for customer facing jobs in Japan

Robo-service

In the not so distant future, could the waiter at your local café be a robot? A few novelty restaurants around the world, from Japan to the USA have robots involved in their food production line. Unlike multipurpose virtual assistants like Siri and Alexa, these bots have only one ability whether it’s flipping burgers or taking your food order. In fast food chains, where seconds count, AI can be used to increase ordering accuracy and reduce customer waiting times. With fast food companies often struggling to find and keep employees, some are looking to AI to reduce the number of employee work hours while being able to continue providing fast customer service.

Is AI an opportunity or a threat? Some main and valid concerns are for those who could lose their jobs by being replaced. But there’s also an incredible amount of potential for good from precision farming to personalized nutrition. Maybe what we need to remember is that as humans using AI, we are still in control.

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