IBM wants to protect our food by sequencing its supply chains

[company]IBM[/company] is teaming up with food conglomerate Mars to study, and hopefully protect, citizens from foodborne illnesses by sequencing the genes of the tiny organisms that populate our food chains. Consisting of just the two companies right now but expected to grow, the effort is being called, aptly, the Consortium for Sequencing the Food Supply Chain.

The companies will study the metagenomics — essentially, the metadata — of safe factories, farms, grocery stores and other areas in order to determine what’s normal, explained Jeff Wesler, the vice president and lab director IBM’s Almaden research center in San Jose, California. Eventually, the goal is to understand enough about normal, safe conditions that companies will be able to detect deviations early enough to prevent them from spurring an outbreak of salmonella, E. coli, or other dangerous bacteria or chemicals.

For example, he explained, although many places along the food supply chain know to test for salmonella, they might not know to test for, or have any reason to expect, contamination by other substances. Those could be anything from other, foreign bacteria to chemicals such as the melamine found in Chinese milk and infant formula in 2008. Understanding the metagenomics of the product being sold and the factories producing it means companies and regulatory agencies might be able to spot a problem in the microbial ecosystem and then get to work determining what’s causing it.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, foodborne illnesses sicken one in six Americans each year and kill about 3,000 people in the United States. A 2012 study published in the Journal of Food Prediction estimates the annual economic impact of of foodborne illness at nearly $78 billion.

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Right now, Wesler predicts it will be about three to five years before the results of this research might be deployed commercially. The companies will spend the first couple years getting to know the baselines microbiomes of various areas and things, understanding what they’re composed of and how they react to changes in environments or to other stuff. Initial research will focus on Mars facilities, which span a range of products including candy, pet food, packaged food and coffee.

Hopefully, they’ll be able to build up a database of connections between bacteria, chemicals, heavy metals and other substances, and their reactions in the presence of each other. After that, Wesler thinks they’ll be able to begin working on a set of tests that makes sense for particular industries and that can be implemented in a reasonably easy manner.

Wesler calls this the “quintessential big data problem” because it involves analyzing so much data and is only really possible to solve now because of advances in the required technology. In this case, that’s not just cheap data storage and new data-analysis tools, but also better genetic-sequencing technologies. “One of the reasons we even think this is feasible is because of the rise of next-generation sequencing,” he said.

A major uptick in the capabilities of any piece of the chain could speed up the research, he said, but the current state of the art should be capable to work within the predicted time frame.

New from Watson: Financial advice and a hardcover cookbook

IBM has recruited a couple of new partners in its quest to mainstream its Watson cognitive computing system: financial investment specialist Vantage Software and the Institute of Culinary Education, or ICE. While the former is exactly the kind of use case one might expect from Watson, the latter seems like a pretty savvy marketing move.

What Vantage is doing with Watson, through a new software program called Coalesce, is about the same thing [company]IBM[/company] has been touting for years around the health care and legal professions. Only, replace health care and legal with financial services, and doctors and lawyers with financial advisers and investment managers. Coalesce will rely on Watson to analyze large amount of literature and market data, which will complement experts’ own research and possibly provide them with information or trends they otherwise might have missed.

The partnership with the culinary institute, though — on a hardcover cookbook — is much more interesting. It’s actually a tangible manifestation of work that IBM and ICE have been doing together for a few years. At last year’s South By Southwest event, in fact, Gigaom’s Stacey Higginbotham ate a meal from an IBM food truck with ingredients suggested by Watson and prepared by ICE chefs.

Source: I

The IBM food truck.

But even if the cookbook doesn’t sell (although I will buy one when it’s released in April and promise to review at least a few recipes), it’s a good way to try and convince the world that Watson has promise beyond just fighting cancer. IBM is banking on cognitive computing (aka artificial intelligence) to become a multi-billion-dollar business, so it’s going to need more than a handful of high-profile users. It has already started down this path with its Watson cloud ecosystem and APIs, where partners have built applications for things including retail recommendations, travel and cybersecurity.

Watson isn’t IBM’s only investment in artificial intelligence, either. Our Structure Data conference in March will feature Dharmendra Modha, the IBM researcher who led development of the company’s SyNAPSE chip that’s modeled on the brain and designed to learn like a neural network while consuming just a fraction of the power normal microchips do.

However, although we’re on the cusp of an era of smart applications and smart devices, we’re also in an era of on-demand cloud computing and a user base that cut its teeth on Google’s product design. The competition over the next few years — and there will be lots of it — won’t just be about who has most-accurate text analysis or computer vision models, or who executes the best publicity stunts.

All the cookbooks and research projects in the world will amount to a lot of wasted time if IBM can’t deliver with artificial intelligence products and services that people actually want to use.

IBM Launches “Many Bills” Legislation Browser

IBM Research has launched a companion to its Many Eyes data-visualization service called Many Bills, which provides a visual interface for federal legislation. The company says the idea behind the project is to make it easier to understand complicated bills that run to thousands of pages.