Part 1: IBM’s predictions for our technological future

What are the five technologies that are going to fundamentally reshape business and society in the next five years?

Some of IBM’s leading researchers shared their thoughts on this at IBM’s annual Think conference, which was held in San Francisco this month.

A key part of the annual Think conferences is IBM’s “5 in 5” technology predictions, where the tech giant showcases some of the biggest breakthroughs coming out of their research facilities around the world, presented by the people working at those research centres.

This year’s predictions are all related to challenges presented by the world’s ever-growing population, with the global population expected to cross the 8 billion mark within five years.

According to Arvind Krishna, IBM’s senior vice-president for cloud and cognitive software, “to meet the demands of this crowded future, IBM researchers are exploring new technologies and devices, scientific breakthroughs and new ways of thinking about food safety and security”.

He sums up these new innovations as going “from seed to harvest to shelf, table and recycling.”

The breakthrough technologies include an artificial intelligence system that will help small farmers around the world to optimise farmland usage, thereby increasing production.

Internet of Things devices will prevent food waste, while big data systems will protect us from bad bacteria. Sensors will enable us to detect bacteria in food using our cellphones and new plastic recycling technology will save the oceans.

Kenyan computer scientist Juliet Mutahi, the daughter of a coffee plantation owner, said one of the challenges faced by small co-operative farmers like her father was that they lacked the scientific and technological resources to acquire vital data about their farms that would enable them to make informed decisions about how to use their land optimally.

A start-up called Hello Tractor is fixing this by developing a device fitted with a number of sensors that constantly gather important data about the farm.

The device is mounted on tractors and as the farmers go about their normal day-to-day activities, the sensors gather information on the weather, dimensions and elevation of the farm, then uploads the data to a blockchain.

A separate device is used to get information about the soil and the water table. The farmer simply takes soil samples and places them onto the device, which is about the size of a business card.

The device tests the soil sample and submits the data to the blockchain alongside the data from the tractors. The two are combined to produce a “digital twin” of the farm, which is basically a digital representation.

Data from thousands of farms around the world can be gathered in this way, and the collective data is then processed by artificial intelligence software to make recommendations on optimal land usage.

The system is also able to make accurate predictions on future crop yields based on the region, land size, elevation, soil health and other data.

Optimal farmland usage might raise food production, but how much of this food will end up on tables around the world?

Sriram Raghavan, vice-president of IBM Research in India, said almost half of all the fruit and vegetables produced in the world was wasted because of inefficient and chaotic distribution systems.

The result was that too much food was delivered to some areas while others were left out. The excess food was not consumed by anyone and so went bad, leading to large-scale wastage and millions of dollars in lost revenue.

With timely and accurate data on hand, the excess could have been diverted to areas where it was needed, possibly even to places where there was a food shortage or hunger.

In the next five years, this problem will become a thing of the past. Devices will track the movements of fresh produce along every step in the supply chain from source to table, gathering all kinds of data like temperature, ripening and how close the food is to spoiling.

The data will be stored in the blockchain and processed by AI programmes which will, over time, develop high-level models of the movement of food through the supply chain.

These models will then be used to make more accurate and effective recommendations for food produce logistics, minimising over-supply and wastage.

Between these two breakthroughs, there is hope that the world’s food supply problems can be solved. Although it is still too soon to tell, there is even a possibility that such technologies could provide the solution for world hunger.

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