We are living in some of the most exciting times in history.
Not only are we seeing science and technology advancing in unprecedented ways, but it is possible that, in the near future, we are also going to see many of the problems that have plagued us for centuries, such as food-borne diseases, world hunger and pollution, completely disappear off the face of the Earth.
At this year’s IBM Think conference, researchers from the tech giant’s research facilities around the world described five technologies they are working on which they predict are going to radically transform our world in the next five years, bringing us a step closer to what we might have once considered to be a science-fiction future.
Among the technologies they described are an artificial intelligence (AI) system that will help small farmers around the world optimise farmland usage, thereby increasing production;
Internet of Things devices that will prevent food waste, big data systems that will protect us from bad bacteria, sensors that will be enable us to detect bacteria in food using our cellphones, and finally, new plastic recycling technology that will save the oceans.
In the previous article in the series I discussed the first two technologies. In this article we will take a closer look at the next two, both of which relate to food-borne diseases.
Big data will protect us from bad bacteria. Every year, around 600 million people, many of them infants, fall ill after consuming spoiled or contaminated food.
Unfortunately, we have no way to prevent this. Lab testing of food is time-consuming, expensive and error-prone, and we typically only do it after a food poisoning incident has occurred. There is no way to test food on the spot.
What we need is a food testing system that is a lot more accurate and effective than current methods, and is so accessible that it can be used by anyone, anywhere.
Incredibly, this is going to become a reality within the next five years, thanks to two independent teams of researchers at IBM.
The first team, headed by Geraud Dubois, has figured out a way to “spy” on the bacteria living in the food, gathering data about them. Using this data, they are able to make extremely accurate predictions about the state of the food. Like our bodies, the food we eat is full of bacteria, some good for us and some dangerous.
Different food types contain different types of bacteria, while a single food item might have different types of bacteria at different stages in its life cycle.
For example, chicken has a set of microbes living on it, while pork has a completely different set. Under normal circumstances, we should not find pork microbes living on chicken, or vice versa. If we do, then that is a strong indication that cross-contamination has occurred.
Similarly, fresh bread might be populated by certain bacteria, while stale bread might host completely different species. These bacteria number in the millions, and there may be tens of thousands of different species on a single food item. The challenge is to identify the different species, know the good from the bad and, very importantly, to understand what the presence of certain bacteria might mean in a food type.
Once we can overcome this challenge, it will be possible to determine if a certain food is good to eat or not.
Geraud and his team have been sequencing the DNA and RNA of microbes on food and, using big data analysis, were able to a create a massive database of all the microbes produced in the world in the last 10 years.
AI will enable home bacteria detection. While it is great having a comprehensive database of microbes, that information will be useless to us unless there is some way to actually detect the types of microbes living on our food. The second team of researchers at IBM is solving this problem by developing sensors that can detect bacteria on food items using nothing more than a cellphone.
The sensors, which will be capable of detecting bacteria as small as 1micron (75 times smaller than the width of a human hair), will scan the food item for bacteria, cross-reference these against the microbe database developed by Geraud’s team and provide information within seconds.
Within a few years, the sensors will be small and cheap enough to be present everywhere: in our fridges, on kitchen tops and even on cutting boards, as well as on supermarket shelves and fridges. All we will have to do is hold a sensor up to a food item, and within seconds it will tell us if the food is fresh or not.
Between these two technologies, the world’s food industry will be completely transformed.
Not only that, but we will also be able to live much healthier lives because, for the first time in history, we will have the ability to accurately detect if a food item is good for us, or not.