IBM Research has a long history of inventing the future, so the big tech company’s researchers take their predictions seriously. Today they are revealing their annual “5 in 5” predictions, which detail five innovations that will change our lives in the next five years.
IBM will talk about the predictions at its Think 2019 event in San Francisco on Wednesday from 10 a.m. to 11 a.m. Pacific time.
Spurring the need for innovation is demand placed by the Earth’s expanding population. Arvind Krishna, senior vice president of IBM Cloud and Cognitive Software, said in a blog post that the world’s population will soon cross 8 billion for the first time.
“Our complex food chain — already stressed by climate change and a finite water supply — will only be tested further,” he wrote. “To meet the demands of this crowded future, we will need new technologies and devices, scientific breakthroughs, and entirely new ways of thinking about food safety and security.”
IBM researchers around the world are already working to augment food supply in order to meet this challenge. Efforts include helping farmers maximize crop yields and developing ways to curb the epidemic of waste that destroys 45 percent of our food supply. They are also working to create a safety net to catch pathogens and contaminants before they make people sick. And they’re inventing ways to keep plastic out of landfills and oceans.
Without further ado, here are the predictions, mostly in Krishna’s words:
Farming’s digital doubles will help feed a growing population using fewer resources
How do you give a farmer who has never set foot in a bank access to credit? By digitizing and capturing all aspects of agriculture, from the quality of the soil to the skills of the tractor driver to the price of a melon sold at the market. It’s known as a Digital Twin, and within the next five years, using AI, we can use this data to accurately forecast crop yields, which in turn will give banks and financial institutions the data points they need to provide credit to help farmers expand — maybe money does grow on trees after all.
Blockchain will reduce food waste
Within five years, we’ll eliminate many of the costly unknowns in the food supply chain. From farmers to grocery suppliers, each participant in the supply chain will know exactly how much to plant, order, and ship. Food loss will diminish greatly, and the produce that ends up in consumers’ carts will be fresher — when blockchain technology, IoT devices, and AI algorithms join forces. [Blockchain is a decentralized ledger that is secure and transparent, and it can be used to label products from harvest to consumption.]
Mapping the microbiome will protect us from bad bacteria
Within five years, food safety inspectors around the world will gain a new superpower: the ability to use millions of microbes to protect what we eat. These microbes — some healthy for human consumption, others not — are regularly introduced into foods at farms, factories, and grocery stores. Thanks to a new technique that enables us to analyze their genetic makeup cost-effectively, microbes will tell us a lot about the safety of what we consume.
AI sensors will detect foodborne pathogens at home
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’ll need is a cell phone or a countertop with AI sensors. IBM 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.
VolCat will change plastics recycling
In five years, IBM said the disposal of trash and the creation of new plastics will be completely transformed. Everything from milk cartons to cookie containers to grocery bags and cheese cloths will be recyclable, and polyester manufacturing companies will be able to take in refuse and turn it into something useful. This transition will be powered by innovations like VolCat, a catalytic chemical process that can turn PET, a type of plastic commonly used in food packaging and polyester clothing, into a renewable resource.
The cost-effective and sustainable innovation is capable of breathing new life into old plastic. Currently, more than 272 million metric tons of plastic are produced each year around the globe, with one-quarter of that made up of PET. VolCat aims to use a precise combination of chemicals, heat, and pressure to reduce this amount of plastic, and ultimately the amount of waste, produced. This could completely transform the way we discard and manufacture plastic in the next five years.
For the record, here are five IBM predictions from 2013 that should have already come true by now. I’ll leave the results for you to judge.
- The classroom will learn you.
- Buying local will beat online.
- Doctors will use your DNA to keep you well.
- A digital guardian will protect you online.
- The city will help you live in it.