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IBM's 5-in-5 foretells life-changing tech in five years

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IBM's 5-in-5 lists innovations the company believes have the potential to change the way people work, live and interact.
IBM's 5-in-5 lists innovations the company believes have the potential to change the way people work, live and interact.

IBM has predicted the five technologies that it believes will change our lives in the next five years.

During the IBM Think 2019 event in San Francisco, Arvind Krishna, IBM's senior vice-president for cloud and cognitive software, unveiled the IBM 5-in-5, a list of innovations the company says have the potential to change the way people work, live and interact during the next five years.

"Within the next five years, the Earth's population will cross the eight billion mark for the first time," said Krishna.

"Our complex food supply chain - already stressed by climate change and a finite water supply - will only be tested further. To meet the demands of this crowded future, IBM researchers are exploring new technologies and devices, scientific breakthroughs, and entirely new ways of thinking about food safety and security."

Below are IBM's 5-in-5 predictions.

Digital farming

According to IBM, by the end of the century, the Earth's population will increase by 45%, while farmable land will decrease by 20%.

"What's more, the farmable land we have may not be used efficiently. Half of farmers worldwide suffer post-harvest losses each year due to poor planting practices. As food demand increases, current farming models will need to improve to keep pace," said Krishna.

IBM believes that creating a digital twin or a "virtual model" of the world's farms could help ready agriculture for this challenge by democratising farm data, allowing those in agriculture to share insights, research and materials, and communicate data on farmland and crop growth across the planet, and connect and cross-reference with the food supply chain.

Speaking at the event, Juliet Mutahi, software engineer at IBM Research, Africa, said IBM scientists in Kenya are developing technology that would allow sensors to provide supply and demand patterns based on groundwater extraction data.

Blockchain prevents waste

According to IBM, within five years, we will eliminate many of the costly unknowns in the food supply chain.

The company says food loss will diminish greatly and the produce that ends up in carts will be fresher when blockchain technology, Internet of things (IOT) devices and artificial intelligence (AI) algorithms join forces.

Sriram Raghavan, VP and CTO of IBM Research, India, said currently, 45% of fruits and vegetables go uneaten due to a chaotic distribution system that cares little about spoilage.

"The imprecise nature of today's supply chain (from farmers and shippers to food-packers and grocers) often leads to perishable produce being thrown away. Farmers often have to rely on guesswork to make planting and harvesting decisions. Sellers also predict customer demand and behaviour based on incomplete information."

Raghavan pointed out that a blockchain-enabled food supply chain enhanced by IOT devices and AI computing could move people closer to zero-waste food consumption.

He added that IOT sensors could be used to track fruits, vegetables, or any other food items on the long journey from field to grocery store.

Mapping the microbiome

Geraud Dubois, head of IBM Research, Almaden, said millions of microbes co-exist within the food supply chain; some are healthy for human consumption and others are not.

He noted those that cause food-borne illnesses account for $9 billion in medical costs and another $75 billion in recalls and destroyed food annually.

"What's more, food-borne illnesses cause 128 000 hospitalisations and 3 000 deaths every year in the US alone. Traditional culture tests could take days to perform and may only indicate the existence of one target problematic bacteria. This inability to proactively sound an alarm bell about a potential anomaly in a microbiome costs governments and companies billions of dollars," he said.

According to Dubois, using DNA and RNA sequencing, researchers may soon be able to profile microbiomes everywhere that food production or food delivery occurs.

"These analyses can be used to detect anomalies in the microbiome; for example, a sudden and unanticipated uptick of a pathogenic bacteria within a pork sausage sample, or a shift in the overall microbiome composition."

AI sensors detect pathogens

IBM is of the view that within five years, the world's farmers, food processors and grocers - along with its billions of home cooks - will be able to detect dangerous contaminants effortlessly in their food.

"All they will need is a cellphone or a countertop with AI sensors," said Donna Dillenberger, IBM Research fellow.

According to Dillenberger, in the US alone, the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that foodborne diseases cause 76 million illnesses, 325 000 hospitalisations, and 5 000 deaths each year.

"This technology could greatly diminish those numbers and make an even bigger impact globally. Recent outbreaks of harmful E.coli show how stubbornly resistant our food system is to change. A big factor is that laboratory testing is costly and inefficient, requiring up to 48 hours to produce results. We don't have the luxury of time when protecting ourselves from foodborne pathogens."

She pointed out that researchers are creating powerful, portable AI sensors that can detect foodborne pathogens anywhere and everywhere they might turn up.

"These mobile bacteria sensors could dramatically increase the speed of a pathogen test from days to seconds, allowing individuals up and down the food chain to detect the existence of harmful E.coli or Salmonella before it becomes an outbreak."

Radical recycling

IBM predicts that in the next five years, plastic recycling advancements like VolCat could be adopted around the globe to combat global plastic waste.

"People at the grocery store buying a bottle of soda or container of strawberries will know that the plastic they've purchased won't end up in the ocean, but instead will be repurposed and put back on the shelf," said Jeannette Garcia, master inventor at IBM.

She explained that unlike traditional mechanical recycling, future plastics recycling will break down both coloured and clear plastics, as well as dirty and clean containers, producing a high-quality final product that is 100% recyclable.

"For people at home, future recycling advancements will mean no more sorting, rinsing and separating used containers, wrappers, or plastics. All polyester waste can go directly into the trashcan and onto the curb for pickup, and from there to a recycling facility, to be digested and transformed into new and renewable material."

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