Brain Food The Official IFT Blog. A plate shaped as a head with food on top and a fork and knife.
AI technology used in farming

From its power to process and classify vast amounts of data quickly to its ability to recognize patterns and even make informed decisions, artificial intelligence (AI) is fast transforming the food science and technology landscape. 

“We’ve hit a point where it’s clear to pretty much everyone that AI has the capability to fundamentally shift not just how we do our jobs but how we live our lives,” says Dray McFarlane, cofounder of Tasio, an artificial intelligence lab that helps associations understand and better integrate AI into their business processes. “In the food science and technology space, this could not be more true.” 

Using computer systems to perform complex tasks traditionally carried out by humans, AI’s applications for the global food system are innumerable, spanning everything from enhancing agricultural practices to streamlining food safety and quality control to offering up wellness and personalized nutrition recommendations. “AI is revolutionizing food science and technology at a pace that no one can afford to ignore,” McFarlane adds. “Yet, we’re actually in a moment of calm right now—a time to learn and prepare before AI is embedded in all aspects of our lives.”

Below, McFarlane elaborates on the importance of getting comfortable with this unfolding technology and where it could take us next. 

Why is competency in AI so critical right now? Why is it such a hot topic? 

AI has historically been a bit of a nebulous buzzword, but very recently—and very suddenly—an accessible, easy-to-understand, and almost magical example was thrown out into the world. In 2022, ChatGPT gave the public direct, hands-on experience with the latest developments in generative AI and, since then, the technology has advanced rapidly. It’s critical we educate ourselves and build our comfort level with the basics because right now we’re in a bit of an in-between position where the path forward is clear but AI either isn’t capable of or just hasn’t been put in place to take over critical roles yet. 

How is AI being leveraged to enhance the global food system? 

There are a ton of cases where AI is used with machine learning techniques to help improve safety, reliability, and efficiency, but generative AI is still new enough at a competent level that everyone is trying to figure out exactly where it fits in at scale. Capabilities with language and the ability to interact with systems through conversation are just the beginning. We’re already seeing AI models dramatically improving their capabilities with vision and audio interaction, and the ability for generative models to coordinate other tools and systems is massive.

What impact could AI have on the future of food? 

It’s hard to imagine a limit. We’re not even close to using what has already been made available to its full potential, and the technology just keeps improving. From farming and other food production to transportation, distribution, and preparation, AI is going to be embedded everywhere. Maybe starting with virtual assistants that can help provide on-the-spot advice and answers to various questions and problems, ramping up to agents that are physically present and equipped with vision to see what is happening and jump into tasks when needed without prompting. I anticipate that things will only continue to advance further as parallel technologies like robotics and better energy sources are developed.

What is the biggest challenge you see with users trying to adopt AI?

To me, the biggest hurdle tends to be expectations. Without experience directly with AI, especially generative AI, people’s expectations are being set by whatever they hear from friends, family, the news, and social media. Depending on what they consume and how they interpret it, they end up in different positions on a grid going from fear to excitement and dismissal to worship. If there are strong expectations going in, it’s hard to get past them to learn what’s real, what we should or should not worry about, or how to approach these tools to make use of them effectively and responsibly. That’s one of the major points we try to push in our educational sessions: get your hands on these very accessible tools so you can figure out what is real and what isn’t.

You’ll be hosting AI workshops leading up to and at IFT FIRST. What can participants expect? How will these sessions help them level up their skills? 

Our goal is to focus on communicating with technology through natural language, the basics of using and understanding generative AI. We’ll go through some history because looking at how we got here informs where we’re going and how fast we can expect changes to come. Then, we’ll dive into examples using tools like ChatGPT. We will explore techniques around how to use those tools, but the point is more about building comfort and helping people get “useful” results with enough information on responsible and safe use to minimize risks. We work with a lot of people who either did some AI experimentation and didn’t find success or who just haven’t tried the latest generation of tools yet. We want participants to walk away feeling knowledgeable enough to safely try things on their own and excited to start offloading tasks so they can focus more on where they can contribute the most and what they enjoy.

McFarlane and his colleague, Tasio cofounder Thomas Altman, will offer two upcoming workshops to deepen understanding of artificial intelligence through hands-on exercises, real-world use cases, input from AI thought leaders, and more. Harness the power of this quickly evolving technology and register now for a three-week virtual course comprised of four 90-minute, interactive sessions starting April 23 or a two-day in-person course, held July 13-14 at IFT FIRST.

Hungry for more on AI? Don’t miss the event’s opening keynote, Revolutionizing Food Innovation through AI, which features top experts like Amazon’s Justin Honaman, MBA, and explores how collaboration across the human/machine spectrum is fueling groundbreaking advancements in everything from predictive analytics to food product development. Numerous AI-related sessions will follow. IFT FIRST takes place July 14-17, 2024, at Chicago’s McCormick Place. Save up to 30 percent when you register early. Discounted registration ends April 19—reserve your spot today!

Get More Brain Food

Read More Blog Posts