When I was younger, my dream was to be a professional chef. This was driven partially by my aunt’s love of all things Paula Dean. I remember sitting in the living room next to my toy kitchen set, watching the Food Network for hours on end. Most of my childhood was either spent here or in the kitchen attempting to make something tasty out of whatever ingredients we had on hand (See below for a picture of 5-year-old Liv attempting to make some pie). Although my cooking skills did not evolve to be anything special, my interest in all things food has continued. I am a foodie at my core.
As technology continued to alter our world, food and grocery were the two industries that I never thought would be disrupted. How could you automize something that held such a significant place in our day to day lives? Somehow it just felt wrong to me and, to an extent, it still makes me a little uneasy. According to an Accenture study, the food industry as we know it is going to change more in the next ten years than it has in the past fifty. Every aspect will be altered including what we shop for, how we shop, and who (or what) actually does the shopping.
Several macro-level changes have attributed to this shift. The world population will continue to move away from rural areas into more urban areas, necessitating increased efficiency in the supply chain to compensate for decreased production. As wealth inequality continues to increase in the United States, consumers who are lacking access to healthy food are going to seek out more efficient ways to improve their diets. Climate change will lead to a change in growing seasons and crop production. New food businesses with new business models are popping up left and right with these problems in mind. These new platforms utilize big data, analytics, and AI in order to decrease inefficiencies and cater to modern, convenience-seeking consumers. (The chart below, created by Accenture, shows the different business models that can be adopted based on the consumers desired level of effort and convenience.)
Take meal prep kits and grocery delivery for instance. Startups in this category raised $781 million in funding in 2017 alone. Hello Fresh and Blue Apron make it easy to pick your meals ahead of time, and all the ingredients get shipped directly to your door. Instacart allows you to shop from a variety of different grocers at once and then select a delivery time that is most convenient for you. Both platforms analyze your personal shopping habits, selecting meals and sending coupons to create an extremely personalized shopping experience. Personal assistant services like these are expected to continue to grow, grabbing more market share as customers become increasingly dependent on a high level of convenience.
As much as grocery delivery has altered the marketplace for food, there is no match for the impact AI will have on the industry. AI bots will continue to increase in intelligence and number, connecting industries throughout the health and wellness landscape. This is where I think the future of food gets interesting. For example, let’s say ten years down the line your health care provider or nutritionist recommends you follow a specific diet. They upload the required caloric information to your health and wellness app on your phone. This app is also linked to the local grocery stores in your area. The local grocer’s AI bot will run your nutritional recommendations against the food items they have in stock and provide you with a number of different pre-made meal options and recipes. You approve which meals you would like for that week and the grocer’s AI bot compiles a list of ingredients. This list is then sent to your smart fridge and smart pantry where those bots double check the ingredients you already have on hand, preventing double purchases. The double-checked list is then sent to the grocer’s warehouse, where all the fresh ingredients are picked, packed, and delivered to your door by Sunday afternoon.
I don’t know if I will ever be completely okay with that level of disconnect from the food I eat every day. However, the level of efficiency and convenience that AI brings to the table is unmatched, and it has the ability to solve a number of problems within the food industry. Double-checking for needed ingredients and delivery of pre-portioned amounts will lead to a decrease in food waste. Assuming that technological advances will eventually drive down the costs of these services, the automated delivery system will allow for increased access to healthy food for people living in food deserts.
While it may always be a little creepy, I’m interested to see where the future of food is headed and the kind of impact it will have on our society. I was once convinced that the food industry was undisruptable, but I’ve come to realize that the disruption is just getting started.