Category Archives: Technology

TEXT MSSG: “Your milk is starting to spoil. Dump & replace it.”

trinity materials scientists

Jonathan Coleman (center) and materials science team members at Trinity College, Dublin. (Photo: Trinity)

 

Imagine getting a text on your phone advising you that the milk carton in your fridge is almost empty (so it’s time to order, or pick up, a new one!), or that the milk in that carton is starting to spoil. It is extremely likely that will not only be possible, but be happening before you’ve experienced too many more birthdays.

A team of materials scientists at Trinity College in Dublin have figured out how to make that happen; They just need more time to work out some critical details, Smithsonian.com reported this week. Citing a more technical report published this month in the journal Science, Smithsonian noted that the key is a first-ever 2-D transistor made of a form of graphite – a natural material “that’s dug out of the ground,” said as leader Jonathan Coleman put it. The honeycomb lattice of carbon they’re working with is has a depth of one atom, making it suitable for an “unimaginable” range of potential uses, Coleman said.

One would be that milk carton label. Others could – and likely will – include supermarket price labels that update themselves, wine bottle labels that can warn you when the bottles (and thus the wine) are being stored in too warm a location.

Perhaps best of all, the new 2-D printed electronics are cheaper than current versions, and they don’t have the same performance limitations having to do with stability and energy conversion.

If you can print electronics very cheaply, you can imagine things that are almost unimaginable,” Coleman said.

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“Smart” KFC in Beijing Is Not Quite Smart Enough

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No one is paying any attention to the “smart” machine at the left of the photo. (Amy Hawkins, The Guardian)

Even in China, where lack of privacy is pretty much taken for granted, KFC is running into some resistance its efforts to employ a machine able to recognize facial characteristics to pre-select food choices for customers before they have a chance to choose for themselves.

The Guardian’s Amy Hawkins “test-drove” the machine at a KFC in Beijing’s financial district. Though the store was busy, she was the only customer interested in ordering through the machine, which was created by Baidu, the search engine company often called “China’s Google.”

Maybe the machine is too closely oriented to Oriental features to be able to make sense of Amy’s Western ones. Maybe that’s why it was a decade off on her age. Maybe that had something to do with why she was offered the same thing – a crispy chicken hamburger – as the 20-something male who demonstrated the machine to her.

If you don’t like the machine’s recommendation, you can click through an assortment of other food options until you find what you want, they pay for your order through your smart phone and pick up your food at the counter.

The device, in what’s being billed as “China’s first smart restaurant,” is going to need to get a good deal smarter if KFC follows through on its plan to install them in the company’s 5,000-plus stores across China.

A press release from Baidu said that “a male customer in his early 20s” would be offered “a set meal of crispy chicken hamburger, roasted chicken wings and [a] coke”, while “a female customer in her 50s” would get a recommendation of “porridge and soybean milk for breakfast.” Fortunately, most Chinese would be too polite to bash the machine’s brain if it offered the “porridge and soybean milk” option to a lady in her 20’s!

Olive, Alive Oh: A Tree’s Genome Has Been Sequenced in Spain

olive-tree

Credit: Manuel Sánchez (RJC-CSIC)

The more that is known about a plant, the better the chances are for modifying its behavior and improving its product – be it a fruit, a nut or, as an example, a kind of fruit called an olive.

Researchers in Spain recently sequenced the complete genome of a 1000-year-old olive tree, and it is widely expected their work will – in time, but hardly soon – enable improvements in genetics improvement for production of olives and olive oil, and possibly also lead to advancements in protecting olive trees from attacks from the bacteria Xilella fastidiosa and the fungi Verticillium dahlia – something not accomplished anywhere to date.

A report on this breakthrough, which was several years in the making, appeared in the July 4 issue of New Food magazine.

The reason it will be some years before many significant result from the sequencing concerns the fact that olive trees grow very slowly. Very very slowly. That may have something to do with why they can live to a ripe old age of 3000-4000 years!

“Without a doubt, [the sequenced tree] is emblematic, and it is very difficult to improve plant breeding, as you have to wait at least 12 years to see what morphological characteristics it will have, and whether it is advisable to cross-breed,” says Toni Gabaldón, ICREA research professor and head of the comparative genomics laboratory at the CRG.

(“ICREA, the Catalan Institution for Research and Advanced Studies, is a foundation supported by the Catalan government and guided by a board of trustees. An institution without walls, ICREA works hands in hand with Catalan universities and research centers to integrate ICREA research professions in the Catalan research system. The foundation offers permanent, tenured positions to researchers from all over the world interested in coming to work at Catalonia. Over the years, these positions have  become a synonym of global academic excellence,” the Foundation’s website says.

(The Centre for Genomic Regulation (CRG) “is an international biomedical research institute of excellence, created in December 2000. It is a non-profit foundation funded by the Catalan Government through the Departments of Economy & Knowledge and Health, the Spanish Ministry of Economy and Competitiveness, the ‘la Caixa’ Banking Foundation, and includes the participation of Pompeu Fabra University,” CRG’s website says.)

Pablo Vargas, who coordinated the three-year research effort to sequence the olive tree’s genome, says this about the research: “There are three phases to genome sequencing: first, isolate all of the genes, which we published two years ago. Second, assemble the genome, which is a matter of ordering those genes one after the other, like linking up loose phrases in a book. Last, identify all of the genes, or binding the book.”

Clearly not a simple, get-in-done-by-next-Tuesday project!

While the researchers didn’t say as much in the New Food article on their work, it would appear obvious that it won’t just be Spanish olive trees to benefit from their efforts. How, and how much, will come to light when it does – to scientists, researchers and olive-growing/processing specialists a decade or so from now.

3-D Food Printing: Coming Soon to . . . YOUR Area?

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A necessary aside: I am 73 years old. I am finding it increasingly more difficult, recently, to get my head around some of the totally mind-boggling technological developments smiling, hard-working 20-somethings are coming up with these days.

I ‘get’ that the cloud doesn’t mean data is likely to come pouring out of the sky on heavily overcast days. But the concept of 3-D printing of parts for this and that has caused me to scratch a new, hair-free hole in my head. Now I learn that, not just ‘on the horizon’ but already it is possible to 3-D print food!   

I’ve read about it; I’ve watched the video linked to below. I still feel that I barely grasp what in the world these people are doing, and what it suggests for the future!

But this is a ‘trends’-oriented blog, and this is, hard as it may be to imagine, a trend. I don’t expect I’ll ever be ‘printing’ any of my food, but many born much more recently more than likely will – probably sooner than you’d think!

In Sweden, a company named VTT says on its website it uses “4,000,000 hours of brainpower a year to develop new technological solutions.”

Among them – in a world where some solutions are chasing and anticipating problems – is a way to create interesting new food products employing 3-D printing – where, in this case, raw materials, actual edible ingredients, are combined in unique ways and either printed or extruded into interesting, imaginative shapes, familiar and even exciting new flavors in the forms of ‘foods’ the world’s never seen before. Foods well beyond, in short, what nature has created – but ‘good’ enough, in their own right, to attract – or so the imaginers say – commercial audiences of various sorts.

As recently as a decade ago, most scientists, even, would have declared this to be a fantasy – something that could never be done. But it is being done, today, by no less a name brand than Barilla, which is employing printing technology to generate pasta in both traditional and highly imaginative shapes. And Italy-based Barilla is far from alone in exploring this new frontier.

This video points to five companies creating means for manufacturers, and even families at home, to generate unique foodstuffs they’ve designed themselves, using either pre-packaged or ready-to-hand ingredients. (The latter, I gather, is more a hope than a reality.)

The imaginations of those creating products likely to become, within a short few years, as ubiquitous as the home microwave seem to have no limits. One company/research lab involved in such developments even has a slogan something like “If you can imagine it, we can create it”! And I don’t doubt for a minute that they can.

In the above-cited video, you see a room occupied by a number of people at computer terminals. Collectively – no, individually – they have access to more computing power than it took to put a man on the moon. The amount of computing capacity of such a research room is, today, almost impossible to calculate.

By comparison, the Manhattan Project, which led to the creation of the first atomic bomb (and, ultimately, the end of World War II), involved more than 130,000 people and cost the U.S. nearly $2 billion, in 1940’s dollars – about $26 billion today. They didn’t have a lot of computing power to work with – and that’s an overstatement.

Today’s whiz kids – that was the name of a 1980’s TV series – are seeing the technology available to them expanding so fast it must be hard for even these hard-wired kids to keep up!

One of my sources for this post was the U.K.’s New Food magazine. You can subscribe free at their website. But you don’t really need to: I’m pretty on top of what they say that should – really should – interest you.

One of the aims of this blog is to stretch your horizon – to take you places, in terms of countries, developments, and concepts – your schedule keeps you from keeping up with in the way I do.

I will be highly appreciative if you will get others in your organization to ‘follow’ me. I make no money from this blog, but I hope to do so – sooner than later.

(I’m getting on, and I have a 23-years-younger wife I hope to take places I’ve been. One year, 20 some years back, I saw Christmas decorations in New York City, London and Paris in the same season. It would be nice to do that again with someone who’s never seen either of the latter two cities! Social Security – plus her way-too-low salary – doesn’t allow for it. But support for this blog – and my other one, YouSayWHAT.info – could help do so!)

Ordering Systems Win Big in QSR Magazine’s Applied Technology Awards

 

GDS_large-size_display

A fascinating assortment of innovations took top honors in QSR Magazine’s Applied Technology Awards for 2016.

One of the winners is a 46-inch outdoor display Starbucks is using to simulate, at its drive-thrus, the over-the-counter, face-to-face experience customers get inside their stores.

The magazine’s explanation for why this entry won: “The enormous outdoor display accomplishes two things that have long been elusive in the limited-service industry: It’s dynamic and attractive, but also tough enough to install in any location. More impressive, though, is the Facetime-style feed that creates a personal connection between customer and employee, allowing Starbucks to engage on a more personal level with guests.”

Almost at the opposite extreme – in that it removes the face-to-face interaction between server and patron – is iPourIt Inc.’s self-serve beer and wine tap system, which allows customers to pull their own pints (or glasses of wine) while the one-time server serves other customers, and the restaurant’s owner reaps the rewards of a more efficient and more productive operation. The self-served servings are, of course, metered, so the customer is billed, as usual, for what’s been ordered – ‘self-served’, in this instance.

The magazine says the iPourIt system “also gives [operators] a fun and interactive way to introduce alcohol to their in-store experience.”

Sure to be popular with Millennials and others who seem perpetually attached to their smart phones is Domino’s Emoji Ordering system that, QSR says, “takes all the hassle out of the ordering process” – particularly for people who habitually order the same thing.

All guests need to do, the magazine says, “is set up an online account through Domino’s and then save an ‘easy order,’ and from then on they will receive that order any time they tweet or text the pizza emoji to the brand.”

Another perceived advantage is that the system “cleverly lets customers order and interact with the brand where they spend an increasing amount of time every day: On their smart phone. Besides,” they add, “who wants to go through the trouble of dialing a phone number anymore?” (Duh! That’s why people store numbers in their phones!)

Oh, and it you want to break the routine and order something aside from the usual, this system won’t be of much help.

Among the balance of the eight winners, the one that strikes us as most useful – and beneficial, cost-wise, is SCA Americas’ Tork Expressnap Drive Thru Napkin Dispenser. It delivers a set quantity of napkins through a drive-in window at the touch of a button – serving to save the drive-thru employee time, prevent them from grabbing fistfuls of napkins that, facility owners surely know, often are wasted and always are costly.

The winners’ list also included an app-based system to allow passengers passing through Atlanta’s airport to order on the fly, as it were, while standing in a security line or somewhere else removed from the source of what they want to eat; An e-learning ‘academy’ “through which both hourly employees and area directors are learning about the culture, standards and core processes driving the [Newk’s Eatery] brand [in Mississippi]”; HMR’s Vuze Table Location System, which lets the likes of McDonald’s – an initial user – use a guest tag and radio frequency identification (RFID) technology to learn exactly where customers are so orders can be delivered right to them, and a point-of-purchase software program designed to provide full-color renderings of individual restaurants’ interiors, allowing for the prioritizing of merchandising elements in a way that, QSR notes, “maximizes the potential of each poster, decal, banner and more within the dining room, the front counter area, the drive-thru and the store’s exterior.”

The magazine notes that while POP has never been an exact science, this system gets pretty close to offering one.

This is, of course, but the latest step in the homogenizing of America, enabling restaurant operators to have their facilities as indistinguishable as hotel rooms – and town approach-roads – have long been.

There are those who’d say this trend is not in anyone best interest.

USDA Grants To Fund At Least 80 Research Projects Concerned With Food Safety, More

 

NIFA_budget_proposal

The USDA has awarded $30.1 million in competitive grants to fund 80 research projects to improve food safety, reduce antibiotic resistance in food, and increase the resilience of plants in the face of climate change. The grants are made possible through USDA’s Agriculture and Food Research Initiative (AFRI), the nation’s peer-reviewed grants program for fundamental and applied agricultural sciences.

In addition to the awards, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and Dr. John P. Holdren, President Obama’s Science and Technology Advisor and Director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, announced that the President’s 2017 Budget will invest a total of $700 million for AFRI, the fully authorized funding level established by Congress in the 2008 Farm Bill.

In the seven years since AFRI was established, the program has led to discoveries in agriculture to combat childhood obesity, improve and sustain rural economic growth, address water availability issues, increase food production, find new sources of energy, mitigate the impacts of climate variability and enhance resiliency of our food systems, and ensure food safety.

“In the face of diminishing land and water resources and increasingly variable climatic conditions, food production must increase to meet the demands of world population projected to pass 9 billion by 2050,” said Secretary Vilsack. “Funding in research to respond to these challenges should be considered as an investment in our nation’s future, an investment which will pay big dividends in the years to come.” Since its creation, AFRI has been funded at less than half the levels established in the 2008 Farm Bill, and USDA has only been able to fund one out of 10 research proposals presented.

While grants awarded to universities, non-profits, community groups, businesses, foundations, associations, and federal agency and international partnerships have led to significant achievements that address critical issues related to agriculture, food, the environment, and communities, thousands of innovative research proposals have been left unfunded.

“Science, technology, and innovation are essential to meeting virtually every challenge our Nation faces, which is why the Administration has consistently supported increasing Federal investments in R&D,” said Dr. Holdren. “Further strengthening our investments in agricultural research will be essential for U.S. farmers to be able to keep the Nation’s food supply abundant, healthy, reliable, and sustainable through the 21st century. That’s why the President’s forthcoming 2017 budget request doubles funding for the Agriculture and Food Research Initiative to the full authorized level of $700 million.”

AFRI grants are administered by USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA), which is making the awards through funding provided in fiscal year 2015. NIFA is awarding $15.1 million to fund 35 projects in AFRI’s Food Safety area, focused on enhancing food safety through improved processing technologies, effective mitigation strategies for antimicrobial resistance, improving food safety, and improving food quality. $3.4 million of this funding will be used to address antimicrobial resistance throughout the food chain.

Since 2009, more than $82 million in food safety research and extension grants has been awarded through AFRI.

NIFA is also awarding $15 million to universities, laboratories, and research organizations to fund 45 projects in AFRI’s Plant Health and Production and Plant Products area. These grants focus on plant breeding for agricultural production; plant growth and development, composition, and stress tolerance; and photosynthesis and nutrient use in agricultural plants.

Since AFRI’s creation, NIFA has awarded more than $89 million to solve challenges related to plant health and production. Additional grants for studies and outreach that address plant protection against microbes, insects, and weeds will be announced later this year.

Diebold App Aims To Eliminate Supermarket Checkout Lines

 

diebold_appHey retailers, here’s a terrifying experiment to see just how honest your customers are: a mobile-enabled self-checkout concept from Diebold. Placing an awful lot of trust in shoppers, the solution from Diebold.  (Photo/caption: Yahoo.)

Much of the time, today, supermarket customers in stores with self-checkout systems save time. But sometimes they don’t – when, for example, they have too many barcode-free items that must be looked up, or when the system’s scale refuses to recognize that everything in the ‘checkout area’ is supposed to be there.

If one potentially difficult problem can be overcome, a new app from Diebold, a leader in self-service solutions since the early (1980’s) days of the bar code, could totally eliminate the issues that can make today’s self-checkout systems frustrating.

Officially launching this weekend at the National Retail Federation’s ‘BIG’ Show (Jan. 17-19) in New York, this mobile-enabled system will let shoppers scan items as they’re being moved from shelves to the shopping cart. Then, when shopping is finished, the consumer taps his or her app-containing smart phone at the self-service checkout, and a payment is made from the shopper’s mobile wallet. Then, the check-out machine will provide a receipt and can even function as an ATM, providing cash-back, too.

But what if the shopper ‘forgets’ to scan an item? Ay, as Shakespeare’s Hamlet said lo those many years ago, there’s the rub – the fly in the ointment, the sticking point. (The latter, in the old game of lawn bowls, is what ‘the rub refers to: A point where the lawn’s surface isn’t smooth to allow a bowled ball to pass smoothly.)

Diebold hasn’t announced a solution to that issue – a far-from-minor point that could, figuratively and literally, send this concept back to the drawing board.

Another issue is, of course, those items that aren’t bar-coded (usually because they need to be weighed and/or counted) and can’t, as a result, be scanned.

The early days of the bar code were plagued by similar problems – from developing the codes themselves (requiring an unprecedented level of cooperation among manufacturers and food retailers) to printing issues, through the overall cost of systems capable of reading universal product codes (UPCs).

As the web site barcoding.com sums it up, “On June 26, 1974, all the tests were done, all the proposals were complete, all the standards were set, and at a Marsh supermarket in Troy, Ohio, a single pack of chewing gum became the first retail product sold with the help of a scanner. Decades of schemes and billions of dollars in investments now became a practical reality.”

Not least because of the cost of installing new equipment, it took a while for the new system to get really settled in at the retail supermarket level: “In 1978 less than one percent of grocery stores nationwide had scanners,” Barcoding.com says. “By mid-1981, the figure was ten percent; Three years later it was 33 percent.”

Today, not only is every significant food retailer in the U.S. equipped with scanners, every food warehouse is, and distribution facilities for virtually every other kind of product depend on these codes for inventory handling and tracking.

How the ‘first step’ – the at-the-shelf item-count – issue will be resolved. But rest assured, it will be, and Diebold’s app, and undoubtedly others like it, will inadvertently do something magical for retailers: Cut their costs, without costing them much of anything. (The scanning-the-mobile-device issue should be a technically easy one to address by app creators, so their product is compatible with existing checkout scanners.).

Watch this space!