We all know that the food industry has been adopting AI slowly compared to other sectors. Well, that’s about to change.
Rather, it is changing already. Technologies like ChatGPT are simply retailing AI, allowing consumers to fully appreciate what AI is and how it can change their world. While it took Facebook 10 months to get a million members, ChatGPT got to one million members in just five days. Things are changing fast.
Machine learning and AI have existed for at least 15 to 20 years. Nothing is new. AI is already everywhere in our lives. But the Elon Musk-funded company OpenAI, which designed ChatGPT, decided to go out and provide public demos to show the world what AI can do.
In many ways, this could become a game changer for the food industry. AI doesn’t create knowledge, at least not yet. But it can help us forecast and become better planners and risk managers.
For instance, think about the food we waste. With AI and smart labels, we could have more data about our food’s shelf life at home before we throw anything away. Best-before dates could become obsolete. Same for recalls. Labels, fridges, cellphones, and watches could tell us when a product was recalled without relying on the news. Our model for food recalls, to throw away everything, is plainly obsolete.
The widely unpopular COVID app was developed a few years ago to keep us safe. We can certainly develop better technology and do the same for recalled food products by using AI to keep us safe.
Our visits to the grocery store could also change. As you prepare to leave, you could have AI optimize your diet based on what’s more affordable that day before you browse aisles physically at the store. Call it your own “inflation cookbook,” if you will. One day, you could also be walking into a grocery store and be asked to either have your face or fingers scanned, giving you suggestions on what to buy to make a favourite recipe based on your own needs, size of household, if you’re hosting, dietary preferences and restrictions and so on. Menu development at the restaurant will also be impacted.
Heck, the first cookbook with all recipes entirely created by AI came out just a few months ago.
In turn, industry use of AI will also likely be enhanced. Grocers will likely use more dynamic pricing because consumers will be better equipped to confront higher food prices. For example, if a product sells, prices go up using digital tags. It’s already happening in many places around the world. Accessible AI could get consumers to appreciate the utility of dynamic pricing in real-time. Things could get interesting.
Consumers are affected by everything – mood, weather, context, the economy, pricing – and so impacts our food choices. Seeking an ideal balance between supply and demand could stabilize food prices over time. A food inflation rate of 10 per cent is just cruel and unsustainable, for both consumers and industry.
Up the food chain, AI is already alive and well. AI algorithms are helping farmers analyze soil, climate, and crop data to predict crop yields, optimize irrigation and fertilization schedules, and improve the efficiency of farming practices. Not all farmers are doing this, of course, but a growing number are.
It’s the same with the supply chain. AI can help predict supply chain disruptions, optimize delivery schedules, and reduce the effect of “shelflation” when a product’s shelf life is compromised by a supply chain issue.
With ChatGPT and other emerging chatbot websites, all of us will better understand what lies ahead. The food industry, especially grocers, will likely respond by embracing more technologies and using consumers as active participants. Scary but exciting at the same time.
But AI won’t have an answer for every challenge the food industry faces. Technology has no ethics or morals; today, food is all about ethics and morals. Food companies have always been caught in this skittish symmetry between traditions, cultures, and technologies. Using new advanced approaches cannot be done to the detriment of what food represents for consumers and communities. But that could change over time. OpenAI will change our world, as the internet did. And it has the potential to change the food industry as well.
Some predict that by 2050, one computer will have the capacity of all human brains on earth. Mindboggling. The food industry needs to be ready for this.
Dr. Sylvain Charlebois is senior director of the agri-food analytics lab and a professor in food distribution and policy at Dalhousie University.