Being a literal lab rat has its perks. Free room and board. Plus all your diseases, from blindness to cancer, get cured. Suddenly one day you realize you’re no longer thirsty… how neat!
There are downsides, like the fact that the researchers give you those diseases in the first place. And now you can’t even make your own way to the other side of a damn maze without having your brain controlled by a device that tells you where to go.
Researchers at the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology recently created cyborg mice that obeyed the commands of their human overlords, ignoring sex and food cravings entirely, to make it thorough a maze. To do this, the team of researchers “hacked” into the mice’s brains using a technique called optogenetics — a process in which fiberoptic threads (or similar tools) are inserted into the brain to manipulate the activity of neurons in living tissue. Turning these threads on and off affect light-responsive proteins, influencing their function.
For this experiment, researchers made a mouse crave a ball that was placed in front of it, then chase it wildly. Turning the signal off immediately made the mouse completely disinterested in the ball. Whether the mice seemed completely bewildered by their dramatic change in desires was not altogether clear (or, at least, observable).
Next, the researchers took control of the cyborg mouse, steering it through a vicious trial maze of distractions: a female mouse in heat, an Indiana-Jones-like bridge obstacle, and plenty of delicious food. With the mind-control switch flipped to “on,” the scientists were able to steer the mouse straight to the other end of the maze.
And what’s the point, you may rightfully ask? The team imagines the technology could help officials control animals needed to complete scent-sensitive missions, like search and rescue, landmine detection, and sniffing out drugs.
Compared to the stiff, stumble-prone (yet determined) robots of today, animals are far more agile and able to cross treacherous terrain. “Animals are naturally able to live and move through complex environments and, of course, do not need batteries,” Daesoo Kim, project lead, tells IEEE Spectrum.
Indeed, scientists have created “remote-controlled” animals before, mostly as a proof of concept. Last year the team developed a “parasitic robot” that was mounted to the back of a turtle, and controlled its movements with a “heads-up LED display” and feeder. In 2012, researchers created cyborg cockroaches that manipulated its sensory organs with the use of a wireless transmitter glued to its back, but with external stimuli, not optogenetics.
You might wonder when this kind of technology could be used in humans. There are medical uses for deep brain stimulation, such as treatments of Parkinson’s disease. But as for using optogenetics to help us avoid snack foods, seems like we’re a ways off.
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Is Fitbit not accurate enough for you? Apple Watch simply not invasive enough?
Maybe a wearable stuck to your tooth would be more your style.
Researchers at Tufts University have created just that. They’ve engineered a tooth-mounted sensor that tracks your every bite (and what it contains). Such a device could be useful, but it could also exacerbate our already-problematic relationship with food.
The device is two square millimeters in size and sticks to the surface of a tooth. The sensor is ingeniously simple — when its central layer changes encounters different chemicals (salt, ethanol), its electrical properties shift, transmitting a different spectrum of radio waves. Currently, the patch is set up to wirelessly transmit information about glucose, salt, and alcohol to a mobile device; its creators think it could be adapted to monitor even more metrics, including “a wide range of nutrients, chemicals and physiological states,” according to a press release.
With such a simple and inexpensive design, the sensor could be made widely available. That could be a huge boon to researchers who need a cheap way to track nutrients in a study, or to people who want to get their diet in check and for whom expensive fitness trackers are out of reach, or just don’t cut it. After all, let’s face it, we’re terrible at remembering what we ate, and how much of it.
But a tracker like this one could also have some negative side effects.
Mobile calorie and exercise-tracking apps already allow people to obsess over their every meal down to the macronutrient, and anecdotal evidence suggests doing so can exacerbate obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) and eating disorders. Clinical psychologist Lara Pence, of the Renfrew Center Eating Disorder Treatment Facility, told New Republic: “It doesn’t really take research for us as an organization or for me as a clinician to see their damaging qualities.” She emphasized that the sense of guilt that trackers promote when a user surpasses their calorie allotment “speaks to the very core pathology of the disease: If I do this, then I have to do that.”
How would a sensor that takes away the most labor-intensive part of fitness tracking — data entry — fit into that trend? To paint with a broad brush, modern culture already has an unhealthy obsession with appearance and body type. A tooth-mounted sensor probably wouldn’t give people eating disorders; these medical conditions are much more complex than that. But it could potentially worsen the symptoms of people who already have these disorders, and make it much easier for others to forget that eating sometimes isn’t just about calories and nutrients — it’s also something that can bring cultural understanding and, you know, joy.
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Many have been calling the healthy and organic food category the nexttrillion-dollar industry. With allergen-free foods experiencing 30 percent sales growth in the U.S. and healthy snacks alone estimated to top$ 138 billion by 2020, it’s not surprising that 88 percent of consumers say they’ll pay more for access to healthy foods.
The demand is there, but the problem is scaling health food production to meet it. And many worry about what will happen if healthy food doesn’t become more cost-effective to produce: American adults hit an all-time high in obesity in 2017, with just shy of40 percent considered obese. Nineteen percent of young people fit in the same category.
Some big corporations have jumped in the fray to produce healthy foods at scale, from Coca-Cola’s Honest Tea to PepsiCo’s KeVita kombucha. But many who purchase natural and organic foods argue that big corporations create synthetic products or dilute the richness of the products offered by smaller manufacturers using traditional methods.
The onus is on technology to make health food production more scalable and cost-effective, as Humm Kombucha’s Eric Plantenberg explains.
Old-School vs. High-Tech
Plantenberg, the chief sales and marketing officer at Humm, remembers watching his mother make kombucha in their family kitchen. His mother, a nurse who grew up on a largely organic farm, made the drink for its health benefits. “We’re full of low-nutrition food these days as a country,” he explains. “Thirty to 40 years ago, the entire food industry changed from producing high-nutrient food to high-caloric because it was less expensive to produce.”
Plantenberg continues, “It was a great ‘feed the world’ mentality, but it completely stripped foods of nutrients. And the bacteria in your stomach drives your tastes and preferences — if you eat an apple a day, you crave an apple because your body wants what it knows. People have been feeling bad — they’re unhappy with their bodies, not just in image, but in microbial discomfort — and it was a setup for the entire movement of natural foods.”
Humm was founded by friends Michelle Mitchell and Jamie Danek in the middle of the recession in 2009. They got 15 orders after trying to sell the homemade product to friends. Plantenberg says it had a viral effect immediately — people felt better after consuming the fermented drink, even if they didn’t change their daily Snickers or McDonald’s habits. That momentum often propelled customers to take on other lifestyle changes, including food modifications.
But as the call for kombucha grew, the grassroots brand had to keep up with it, transitioning from making 10 gallons per week in the kitchen to making 250 in the first six months. The company struggled to figure out how to get bigger vessels, transport the large quantities, and manufacture 50,000 gallons each week. “How do you bridge a very small-batch process and scale it to something 20 million people are asking to drink?” Plantenberg asks.
Following a Steep Trajectory
Humm’s team felt the steep growth of the health food market. “We’ve been through a lot to figure out how to make the tech scalable,” Plantenberg says. “The affordability issue of clean, healthy food is very real. Natural products facilities’ processes are very labor- and time-intensive.”
He explains, “Whole Foods gets a bad rap, but the markup on junk food is so much higher than it is on healthy food. The whole supply chain of healthy foods is broken, and demand has far exceeded our capacity to make products. How do we do this and maintain our quality? A warehouse brand approached us to buy massive amounts of our product, but the quality has to remain the same.”
Mackenzie Stabler, the brand’s director of innovation, has been trying to help the brand do just that: “When Jamie and Michelle started out in the kitchen, they had recipe flexibility, but also inconsistencies from batch to batch. These days, we define quality as having consistency, but it has to make sense with our size.”
She said there’s very much been a relationship between technology and the brand’s ability to keep its products accessible. “Four years ago, we didn’t need a full lab and guard columns (GC). We measure consistency through technology: GC, data tracking, flavor profiles layered on top through GC information to see the peaks and valleys from batch to batch.”
Scaling up has been challenging, as what worked even a year ago doesn’t make sense now. The company has adopted data analysis akin to other high-tech business segments. “Everything we do now is through data collection, algorithms, and quality control software — we’re finding where things correlate, extrapolating trends and outcomes, and doing variable testing. It’s been huge in scaling our process development,” Stabler says.
Tweaking each aspect of the process to scale has created new hurdles to overcome. Stabler says the brand had a flavor in a conventional version that it had to reformulate as organic. It had created a sensory experience with one conventional product, but it couldn’t replicate it with a singular organic product. Instead, the brand put the new version together through all-organic flavor compounds and aromas.
Stabler says tech-fueled tweaks have also lowered the sugar in Humm’s kombucha, making the healthy product even healthier. “The relationship between sugar and acidity allowed us to change the flavors,” she says. “We had the same base product and just adjusted the sweetness or acidity in either direction and used the lab to determine the content of each item.” The brand’s new line extension has only 5 grams of sugar per serving.
But this testing carries a price. Stabler says mass-manufactured kombucha tends to share more similarities with juice from concentrate than 100 percent juice, which is more akin to handmade kombucha. “When a company is using concentrate, the first ingredient will be water; full-strength products will list kombucha first and then the ingredients of kombucha in parentheses,” she explains. “There’s no legal requirement to advertise whether it’s from concentrate or not; from concentrate is cheaper, diluted with water, and it doesn’t require the business to manufacture or grow cultures. They’re essentially a co-packer of a kombucha product.”
Healthy foods, Stabler says, are in the beginning stages of their revolution. “Go back to when beer started — looking at the tech advances, it was very similar to how kombucha has grown,” Stabler says. “But kombucha, until the 1980s, was a pocket thing that still resembled how it had been made in China and Russia. Now, we have mainstream demand to make more, but a consistent, safe product only happens with technology. You can’t do things the old-fashioned way and serve a million people. We want to be sustainable.”
As Humm’s experience proves, the healthy food market may be the next trillion-dollar industry, but it’s already flagged a ripe opportunity for entrepreneurs in the tech arena: healthy food manufacturing. If tech companies shift some of their focus to automating and streamlining the production of healthy food, data-heavy companies like Humm will be able to meet demand — and make people healthier — that much faster.
“It is really heart wrenching to witness a mother in shabby and torn clothes, holding her baby, come to you and ask for help because her baby hasn’t had anything to eat,” Sharma told Science Daily, regarding his experiences growing up in India and the dire need to better prevent hunger.
Sharma’s prototype, called eFeed-Hungers, allows users to find locations nearby that have excess food. The software works on smart devices and allows restaurants, grocery stores, and even individuals to post when they have extra food available to donate. As places and people use the app to list available food, others can use the app to check food listings, which are globally searchable and easily accessible.
“We wanted to make it as simple as possible, so people will not hesitate to donate. There is no scarcity of food. We see this as a way to take some of the food we’re wasting and save it by providing a channel to get the extra food to the needy,” Sharma said to Science Daily.
eFeed-Hungers isn’t the only program looking to cut down food waste and hunger. The Feedback app lets people buy restaurant meals set aside to be thrown out at a massive discount. Another app called Too Good to Go makes excess restaurant food available for free to users in an attempt to save both food and CO2 emissions. LeftoverSwap allows individuals to share their leftovers and food with those in need of a meal. These are just a few examples of apps looking to eliminate food waste. It seems that many are finding the mobile platform is an ideal way to connect those with too much with those who may have too little.
While there are several apps like the one Sharma’s software helped create, one thing that sets it apart is that, instead of focusing just on people’s personal leftovers or restaurant dishes, his efforts encompass a variety of different food waste sources. Additionally, by making this technology globally-accessible, it’s reaching more people. Food waste and hunger are deep-rooted, global issues. A single app might not solve them, but it’s a certainly a place to start.
Jason Kay, CCO of IMS Evolve, explains the role that digitisation is playing in transforming the cold food chain to eradicate waste, improve food safety, and mitigate the risk of a global food crisis.
The world today has a vast problem with food – from a lack of biodiversity to excessive waste, from poor health linked to over consumption to massive food poverty.
We grow enough food to feed 12 billion – far in excess of the seven billion population – and yet more than one billion people are underfed. The UN estimates that, on our current path of food consumption and waste, by 2050 we will reach a tipping point and there will be a global food crisis.
The problems extend from agriculture all the way through the food supply chain to the home, where food wastage – in more economically developed countries at least – is excessive.
The UN target calls for the world to cut per capita food waste in half by 2030 – but while changing consumer education and expectations is essential, as is the drive to increase biodiversity, it is within the food supply chain that these changes will come together.
Without democratising the consolidated food supply market, it will be impossible to reduce waste, embrace innovation, and change consumer behaviour. Systemic change is essential.
The way in which consumers have been educated to purchase food – both in store and in restaurants – has changed radically over the past few decades. Following mass consolidation, both retail and restaurant markets are dominated by a small number of organisations delivering a consistent and stable customer experience, one that offers products of identical size, shape, and price, irrespective of season or country of origin.
Of course, a sizeable proportion of fresh produce will never meet these unrealistic criteria. By creating a consumer expectation for blemish-free goods and specific size, food purveyors have built a market predicated on waste. Even if these ‘non-perfect’ items can be reallocated to sauces or ready meals, damage will occur at each stage of sorting and sifting that will result in further waste.
Yet what has been achieved by this approach? Economically it is flawed, with subsidised agriculture and incredibly low margins for producers and retailers alike. Consumer populations – certainly in more economically developed countries – are less healthy, due in no small part to excessive consumption and the increased use of processing. Ironically, this has been to address food safety concerns, especially regarding fresh food, and to extend shelf life.
Yet, while much of the population feasts on unhealthy, processed food, by 2027 the world could be facing a 214 trillion calorie deficit. Something has gone awry with the global model of food production and consumption.
Lack of innovation
Over the past 50 years, the economies and ethics of food production have fallen out of sync. Farmers do not want to produce food that is wasted, but every aspect of this low-margin model results in waste. Fears regarding food safety combined with failures of cold chain equipment inevitablyleads to food being destroyed.
But basic process failures are just one aspect of the problem.
The sheer cost of managing suppliers to ensure product consistency and safety makes it difficult for retailers to embrace new, innovative providers; while those with existing contracts cannot afford any risks associated with late delivery or under supply, and so build in significant contingency.
The result is not only more waste but also minimal opportunity to invest in innovation, to explore opportunities for new, healthier food options, or embrace automation to improve efficiency.
Achievable change today
Clearly the systemic change required if the world is to avoid the predicted food crisis cannot be achieved overnight. In a difficult, low-margin market, with small numbers of players fighting hard to retain share, it is incumbent upon innovators and disruptive market players to use digitisation to drive that change.
The obvious role of digitisation is in minimising avoidable waste. When one in three freight journeys is food, the use of real-time information to improve routing and distribution planning is key to improving resource usage.
In addition, using existing sensors on refrigeration units, heating units, and air conditioning systems to raise alarms when problems occur (to enable immediate rerouting or allocation of items) can have a significant impact on food waste. Plus, the use of predictive maintenance technologies would help avoid equipment downtime.
This approach is already being used by forward-thinking organisations that are using digital and automation strategies to reduce the avoidable loss of food, achieve huge reductions in reactive maintenance costs, and even reduce customer complaints.
Add in the use of real-time data to support a comprehensive energy management strategy – incorporating a range of different metrics, from seasonal differences to equipment reliability – and organisations can radically reduce annual power consumption.
Together, these changes could result in a reduction in expenditure of tens of millions of dollars. In large estates, the percentile point gains on the capital employed could run into hundreds of millions.
Critically, this is being achieved by layering digitisation over existing infrastructures – clearly it is not feasible for retailers to rip out and replace control infrastructures across hundreds or thousands of locations. The impact on both profit and customer experience would be hugely damaging.
Instead, by using edge-based processing to ensure that information from existing equipment throughout the supply chain is both actionable and actioned, retailers are able to achieve IoT capacity at pace and with minimal downtime. It is this frictionless approach to digital adoption that will be key to releasing measurable value.
Democracy and innovation
With this approach, organisations can achieve a significant revenue uplift, without the need for massive investment.
Indeed, it is the compelling ROI from deploying existing equipment that will be key to providing the investment to underpin the next level of digitisation: the use of traceability systems to manage the advocacy, source, and safety of food.
With the ability to confirm not only that products have been correctly produced, but also that they have followed the correct processes at every stage from farm to retailer, digitisation provides a full audit trail of trusted information.
This approach delivers low cost governance, radically reducing the cost of supplier ownership for retailers, and opening up new opportunities for suppliers to enter the supply chain and create the democracy that is essential to enable innovation.
And it is this innovation that will be key to moving away from the entrenched practices of food procurement that have embedded both consumer expectations and misunderstanding.
A democracy of participation within the food market will help to educate consumers, improve understanding of food quality and the implications to health, and facilitate the introduction of new products and practices, including biodiversity, that deliver a new consumer experience.
A more predictable marketplace will also encourage investment, enabling SMEs to enter and embrace automation to replace the reliance on cheap labour to improve productivity.
The result should be not only less waste and a fairer distribution of food globally, but also a better consumer experience with access to fresher, healthier, and less processed food.
In effect, the adoption of IoT to minimise avoidable waste within the retail cold food chain is the essential first step towards full digitisation throughout the food production lifecycle. That digitisation will underpin the global response to the developing food waste crisis.
A fundamental change to the global supply chain will take time. But there are significant changes that can be made today that not only begin to address the wastage endemic within the food chain, but also release the investment required to support the adoption of digitisation throughout the infrastructure. This will be key to transforming the end-to-end business model.
Embracing digitisation will improve food safety and advocacy, so that the market can democratise access and generate the innovation that is key to making a fundamental change. Automation, enhanced productivity, improving consumer education, and supporting essential change in global food production and consumption: all this can be achieved thanks to the IoT. And that journey starts today.