Smart crops, bacteria-detecting knives, and waste-reducing supply chains: These are some of the futurist scenarios that could become a reality if IBM’s predictions prove to be correct. As part of the bank’s Ninja Project — a program to cultivate BBVA’s internal digital talent and culture — IBM was invited to share its predictions with the bank’s employees.
“Technology should help us to be able to say that in five — and even 50 — years, the earth will still be a nice place to live,” maintains Ángel Castán, head of IBM’s Cognitive Retail unit.
The expert from IBM shared the keys to understanding the five technologies that, according to IBM, could change the world within the next five years, especially in the way we relate to the world around us. It is estimated that the planet’s population will surpass eight billion inhabitants in the next five years, whereas there will continue to be less and less arable land. This will present a challenge to the food supply needed for an ever-growing population, a situation that will find itself further burdened by climate change and a finite water supply.
Researchers at IBM are exploring new technologies and devices, scientific breakthroughs, and completely new ways of thinking about food safety and security, resource optimization, and waste and plastic management:
1. Digital twins to improve crop efficiency
“It is estimated that by the end of this century the population will grow by 45 percent, while farmable land has decreased by 20 percent,” Castán explained. Against this background, the client lead at IBM recalled that societal productivity has seen a notable improvement in recent years and will continue doing so thanks to technology and a resource that is now more available to us than ever before: “Data will enable us to produce more, better quality, and more efficiently.”
This will be possible thanks to the application of digital twins to agriculture. Digital twins are virtual replicas of physical models, and they will facilitate making forecasts about how crops will react over the course of the planting and harvesting processes. By collecting data in real-time, it will be possible to determine which plants can best capture the energy of the sun or CO2 or even absorb more nutrients.
2. An intelligent and traceable supply chain
Each year in Spain, seven million tons of food, mainly fruits and vegetables, go to waste. According to IBM, this is partly due to the fact that the different players along the production and supply chain do not have visibility of future demand and “the decisions they make are based on incomplete information.”
This situation will change in the next five years thanks to the use of blockchain. It will be possible to eliminate the unknowns from the supply chain, basing production on what will be sold the following year. Transportation companies and grocers will be able to adapt their services to the production processes, thus ensuring produce reaches the kitchen as fresh as possible.
3. Using big data to understand food’s DNA
Once produce has been harvested and transported, it is time for it to hit the supermarket shelf. But throughout the steps of the process, our food can be exposed to microbes that can potentially make it unsafe to consume.
This is why IBM laboratories are working on a large genome database from which it will be possible via machine learning techniques to predict how foods evolve as they travel over the supply chain and what impact this evolution could have on consumers. Thanks to these advances, “in the next five years we will be able to understand how all these microbes coexist and interact,” Castán explained.
4. A detective in your kitchen, in pursuit of microbes
Building on from the previous concept, home technology will take us even further: specifically to the kitchen where we will have full control over our food at the time of consumption. To achieve this, IBM has developed optical devices that, installed in a mobile phone — or in the future on a knife or even a cutting board — could act as a warning mechanism about the quality of foods to be consumed. This technology will effortlessly and in real time facilitate the identification and analysis of contaminants found in food.
5. New plastic recycling systems
Eight million metric tons of plastic find their way into our oceans each year, and by 2050 it is estimated that there will be more plastic in the oceans than fish.
In addition to measures to reduce daily plastic consumption, Castán discussed the work IBM is undertaking to develop new systems to tackle one of the biggest challenges that limits the effectiveness of present-day recycling mechanisms: the fact that only about 10 percent of the most common plastics used daily, polyethylene terephthalate or PET, is recycled.
The IBM plastic recycling solution uses a chemical process with a volatile catalyst, VolCat, which completely breaks down various colors of plastic, dirty or clean, converting it into a powder (called a monomer) that is fit for recycling. One hundred percent of the monomer derived from the process can be converted into new plastic.
In short, Castán stressed the responsibility of both people, governments, and large corporations such as IBM, when working to solve the problems that occur throughout the entire food production cycle and thus favor a more sustainable future.. "It is on this cycle that we want to act and understand how technology can help us," he concluded.