You’re walking home after a long day at work, and you begin to feel rather peckish. As you round the corner, you notice a quaint looking cafe and the smell of freshly baked bread wafting through its doors compels you to enter. The smell reminds you of home, and you are almost certain you will find a little old lady behind the counter waiting to greet you.
However, instead, you’re welcomed by a shiny little robot. You take in the vast machinery around; the whir of machines kneading dough, robotic arms placing them in the oven and the baked bread being delivered to your table by a friendly robot waiter. Impressed yet confused you tuck into your meal.
The above scenario is slowly becoming more commonplace around the world, with sushi robots in Japan, complicated meals prepared by robotic chefs in Boston based Spyce. Nonetheless, AI and robotics are making significant strides in revolutionizing the food industry.
Virtual Assistants in the form of AI-based Chatbots are a common way fast-food companies are providing quicker, cost-effective customer service. Taco Bell has always been a technology forward chain experimenting with an automatic taco machine since as early as 1992, More recently in 2016, they launched the TacoBot with which allows people to place orders and have questions answered in a conversational manner using the messaging app. Following their lead, many other fast food companies like Subway have introduced AI Chatbots using Facebook’s system.
Enhanced Food Delivery
The pizza company Dominos can now very much be considered a technology company due to the aggressive amount of innovations they are applying across their operations. The use of integrated GPS to track their delivery drivers not only provides customers the real-time status of their orders but also allows the company to collect mountains of data which in turn helps improve efficiency & safety. They also have an AI-based virtual assistant and have partnered with Starship Technologies to have small six-wheeled robots deliver pizza to customers in Europe by the end of the year.
KFC has collaborated with a search engine giant, to develop a restaurant that uses AI face recognition technology to infer what a customer may be interested in order – based on their sex, facial expressions, and other visual features. Since youth is the primary target audience of the brand, they are also offering augmented reality-based games across 300 of their outlets in China.
The reach of AI in the food industry is not only limited to the consumer model but also applies behind the scenes in food production where the manufacturing of processed foods, logistics and hygiene are highly optimized with the use of AI.
Sorting food is one of the most tedious, time-consuming processes in the food sector. For example, sorting potatoes by size can help manufacturers decide which ones would be great for French fries, potato chips or hash browns. To solve this problem, TOMRA Sorting Food has developed AI based food sorting machines which use sensor-based optical sorting solutions with machine learning functionalities. It utilizes cameras and near-infrared sensors to view food in the same way that consumers do and sorts it based on this data, saving time and money and improving the quality of products.
Food Safety & Hygiene
AI is also helping to improve personal hygiene in a food plant or commercial kitchen. Companies such as KanKan have been working on creating smart solutions to provide Shanghai’s municipal health agency with facial and object recognition. Their AI technology is currently being used in over 200 restaurants. Cameras in the kitchen or food facility watch to make sure that individuals are wearing masks or hair protection when required by safety regulations. Violations can be caught and corrected in near real time.
Coca-Cola is using artificial intelligence to decide what new products it should manufacture. With the endless possible combinations of flavors, spices, and ingredients. It can be difficult for brands to determine what the consumers want. Coca-Cola has installed self-service soft drink fountains which allow individuals to customize their drinks. These freestyle drink dispensers created a massive amount of consumer preference data that Coca-Cola is using AI to analyze. The first product to come from this data was Cherry Sprite. In the next few years, food processors could be able to leverage recommendation engines to suggest new products and flavor combinations to customers
The shift towards AI driven food businesses is apparent, with most major companies like Kraft Heinz heavily investing in this technology to maintain a competitive edge. It is reasonable to expect that AI will very quickly be used more and more by food processing plants to improve feed-stock sorting, find efficiencies, increase safety and reduce food waste.
Brands are harnessing the power of AI to make data-driven decisions to serve consumers in a more personalized manner. Fast-food chains are pushing customers to utilize technology to engage with them to collect traceable data touch points.
However, it is unlikely that technology will completely replace the little lady behind the counter and the chef in the kitchen. The essence of food production and flavor is and always will be uniquely human. AI will merely take over the tedious tasks, allowing us to push our creative boundaries and create better experiences for the consumer.