Mark Davison is at IBM Think in San Francisco – One of the most popular sessions at IBM’s Think conferences is the annual 5 in 5 predictions at its Science Slam – and this year’s event proved to be no exception.

The brainchild of senior vice-president of Cloud and Cognitive Software, Arvind Krishna, the 5 in 5 concept is that five IBM scientists and inventors have five minutes to present their research on technology they think is going to change the world within the next five years.

At this year’s 5 in 5, it came as no great surprise that at the top of IBM Research scientists’ minds is food security and safety, and recycling. They are topics that are seldom out of the news nowadays as the human race starts to realise just how fragile our existence is.

Within the next five years, the Earth’s population will cross the 8-billion mark for the first time. Our complex food supply chain–already stressed by climate change and a finite water supply–will only be tested further. To meet the demands of this crowded future, IBM researchers are exploring new technologies and devices, scientific breakthroughs, and entirely new ways of thinking about food safety and security.

So, as Krishna himself would say: Without further ado, here is this year’s 5 in 5:

Juliet Mutahi, software engineer at IBM Research presented on #twinning: Farming’s digital doubles will help feed a growing population using less resources.

The prediction

Imagine a planet where instant access to critical data on the world’s farmland could be provided to anyone that needs it. In the next five years, this will become reality when a digital twin of the world’s agricultural resources is readily available.

What’s happening today

By the end of the century, the earth’s population will increase by 45%, while farmable land will decrease by 20%. What’s more, the farmable land we have may not be used efficiently: half of farmers worldwide suffer post-harvest losses each year due to poor planting practices. As food demand increases, current farming models will need to improve to keep pace.

Solutions for the future

Creating a digital twin or a “virtual model” of the world’s farms could help ready agriculture for this challenge by democratising farm data, allowing those in agriculture to share insights, research, and materials, and communicate data on farmland and crop growth across the planet, and connect and cross-reference with the food supply chain. With a digital twin of farms and agricultural activity worldwide, participants at every level of the food chain will have access to more information and resources, resulting in a more equitable farming economy. And that means one thing: more food, at a lower cost.

Sriram Raghavan, vice-president and CTO at IBM Research issued a Spoiler alert: Blockchain will prevent more food from going to waste.

The prediction

Within five years, we’ll eliminate many of the costly unknowns in the food supply chain. From farmers to grocery suppliers, each participant in the food ecosystem will know exactly how much to plant, order, and ship. Food loss will diminish greatly and the produce that ends up in our carts will be fresher–when blockchain technology, IoT devices, and AI algorithms join forces.

What’s happening today

Currently, 45% of fruits and vegetables go uneaten due to a chaotic distribution system that cares little about spoilage. The imprecise nature of today’s supply chain (from farmers and shippers to food-packers and grocers) often leads to perishable produce being thrown away. Farmers often have to rely on guesswork to make planting and harvesting decisions. Sellers also predict customer demand and behavior based on incomplete information.

Solutions for the future

A blockchain-enabled food supply chain enhanced by IoT devices and AI computing could move us closer to zero-waste food consumption. IoT sensors could be used to track fruits, vegetables or any other food items on the long journey from field to grocery store. AI-enhanced, realtime data could also help retailers learn more about consumer eating patterns. For example, how does visible freshness affect what produce shoppers buy? At what point in its life cycle does a box of strawberries lose its appeal? Based on the answers AI provides, retailers can adjust buying cycles to ensure those strawberries get onto shelves at exactly the right time (and at the right price).

In the future, produce at the point of sale may be fresher, because both farmers and suppliers know exactly how much to grow and how much to order to meet demand.

Geraud Dubois, director, IBM Research – Almaden, says that mapping the microbiome will protect us from bad bacteria.

The prediction

Within five years, food safety inspectors around the world will gain a new superpower: the ability to understand how millions of microbes coexist within the food supply chain. These microbes–some healthy for human consumption, others not–are everywhere -in foods at farms, factories, and grocery stores.

The ability to constantly and cheaply monitor the behaviours of microbes at every stage of the supply chain represents a huge leap in food safety. In this microbial world, IBM Research has decided to study the dynamics of microbial communities for application in food safety.

What’s happening today

Millions of microbes coexist within the food supply chain – some are healthy for human consumption and others are not. Those that cause food-borne illnesses account for $9-billion in medical costs and another $75-billion in recalls and destroyed food annually. What’s more, food-borne illnesses cause 128 000 hospitalisations and 3 000 deaths every year in the US alone. Traditional culture tests could take days to perform and may only indicate the existence of one target problematic bacteria. This inability to proactively sound an alarm bell about a potential anomaly in a microbiome costs governments and companies billions of dollars.

Solutions for the future

Using DNA and RNA sequencing, researchers may soon be able to profile microbiomes everywhere that food production or food delivery occurs. These analyses can be used to detect anomalies in the microbiome – for example, a sudden and unanticipated uptick of a pathogenic bacteria within a pork sausage sample, or a shift in the overall microbiome composition.

A traditional culture test of the sausage would take days to perform and may only indicate the existence of one targeted problematic bacteria. Advanced big data analytics of NGS results of this food, however, could be performed in a fraction of the time and map out all of the microbes present in the food. These findings could reveal early signals that this microbiome is favorable for the growth of pathogenic bacteria, broadening researchers’ understanding of the entire microbial universe.

By developing a world-class database of microbes and harnessing advances in NGS big data analytics in each stage of the food supply chain, those harrowing numbers could move faster to zero. And food safety becomes predictive instead of reactive.

Donna Dillenberger, IBM fellow at IBM Research played dinner plate detective: AI sensors will detect food-borne pathogens at home.

The prediction

Within five years, the world’s farmers, food processors, and grocers – along with its billions of home cooks – will be able to detect dangerous contaminants effortlessly in their food. All they’ll need is a cell phone or a countertop with AI sensors.

What’s happening today

In the US alone, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that food-borne diseases cause 76-million illnesses, 325 000 hospitalisations, and 5 000 deaths each year. This technology could greatly diminish those numbers and make an even bigger impact globally. Recent outbreaks of harmful E.coli show how stubbornly resistant our food system is to change. A big factor is that laboratory testing is costly and inefficient, requiring up to 48-hours to produce results. We don’t have the luxury of time when protecting ourselves from food-borne pathogens.

Solutions for the future

Researchers are creating powerful, portable AI sensors that can detect food-borne pathogens anywhere and everywhere they might turn up. These mobile bacteria sensors could dramatically increase the speed of a pathogen test from days to seconds, allowing individuals up and down the food chain to detect the existence of harmful E. coli or Salmonella before it becomes an outbreak.

These optical devices can be accessed via a smartphone app, which utilises the phone’s processor to connect with the sensors to detect bacteria as small as one micron – that’s about 75 times smaller than a single human hair.

At home, sensors could be embedded in the cutting boards or countertops where meat or veggies are sliced. They could even take the form of an ultralight appendage on a fork that can analyse a bite of salad mere seconds before you eat it. On the industrial level, they could be assembled into arrays that rove over entire farm fields. Or fastened on to surfaces and conveyor belts inside food processing centres. They could scan produce aisles in suburban grocery stores or fruit stands on rural roads.

Jeanette Garcia, master inventor, IBM Research – Almaden says a radical new recycling process will breathe new life into old plastic.

The prediction

In the next five years, plastic recycling advancements like VolCat could be adopted around the globe to combat global plastic waste. People at the grocery store buying a bottle of soda or container of strawberries will know that the plastic they’ve purchased won’t end up in the ocean, but instead will be repurposed and put back on the shelf.

What’s happening today

Plastic waste is plaguing our planet. In total, people have produced more than 8-billion metric tons of plastic. Half of all newly-manufactured plastic becomes trash in less than a year.

By 2050, there is projected to be more plastic in the ocean than fish. PET is one of the most common manufactured plastic polymers (~10% of total plastics produced per year), a key ingredient in food and beverage packages and in the fibres of cloth.

Historically, most of this material was not recycled, a primary reason that 8-million metric tons of PET plastics are estimated to go into the ocean each year.

Solutions for the future

Advancements in plastics will enable plastic bottles, containers, and PET-based fabrics to be collected, ground up, and combined with a chemical catalyst in a pressure cooker set to above 200 degrees Celsius. With heat and a small amount of pressure, the catalyst is able to digest and clean the ground-up plastic, and the process separates contaminants (eg. food residue, glue, dirt, dyes, and pigments) from material that is useable for new PET. The useable matter (called a monomer) takes the form of a white powder, which can be fed directly into a polyester reactor to make brand-new plastics.

In the coming years, advancements like VolCat will make plastics recycling more efficient and more versatile in treating more material types than its predecessors. Unlike traditional mechanical recycling, future plastics recycling will break down both coloured and clear plastics, as well as dirty and clean containers, producing a high-quality final product that is 100% recyclable. (Mechanical recycling can only be used on clear, pre-cleaned containers and results in a material that’s only reusable when combined with new PET).

For people at home, future recycling advancements will mean no more sorting, rinsing, and separating used containers, wrappers, or plastics. All polyester waste can go directly into the trashcan and on to the kerb for pickup, and from there to a recycling facility, to be digested and transformed into new and renewable material.

In the next half decade, plastic recycling advancements like VolCat could be adopted around the globe to combat global plastic waste. People at the grocery store buying a bottle of soda or container of strawberries will know that the plastic they’ve purchased won’t end up in the ocean but, instead, will be repurposed and put back on the shelf.