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Dinner plate detectives: AI sensors will detect foodborne 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 U.S. alone, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that foodborne diseases cause 76 million illnesses, 325,000 hospitalizations, 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 foodborne pathogens.


Solutions for the future

Researchers are creating powerful, portable AI sensors that can detect foodborne 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 utilize 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 analyze 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 onto surfaces and conveyor belts inside food processing centers. They could scan produce aisles in suburban grocery stores or fruit stands on rural roads.

Developments at IBM Research

IBM's Next-generation Crypto Anchor Verifier

IBM Research is currently creating bacteria-detecting sensors that would be a next-generation extension of IBM’s Crypto Anchor Verifier. This optical device, which is currently being tested by businesses from drug stores to construction companies, uses AI and machine learning techniques to analyze microscopic features and “read” the wavelengths emitted by different substances and objects. After scanning a material, a verifier records its unique wavelength and microscopic details on the blockchain, comparing its fingerprint to that of other identical substances. Soon, we’ll be able to stop them in sub-seconds.