IBM Archives — Carrington Malin

January 10, 2020

New ‘Thank My Farmer’ app will help coffee drinkers further support the farmers who grow their beans

The global coffee industry is now worth some $200 billion (Dh734.64bn) a year, yet the average income for coffee farmers has not changed in two decades. This is according to UK advocacy group Fairtrade. Meanwhile, most coffee drinkers are blissfully unaware that for every $3 to $5 cup of coffee they buy, the original coffee producer may actually make less than 1 cent.

Consumers, as always, wield all the power. They not only play a pivotal role in pushing for higher service standards, but also higher standards of corporate, social and environmental responsibility. In response, many companies have invested in making it easier for consumers to learn more about the products they are buying and the production process. However, transparency has proven difficult to deliver for many food products, including commodities such as coffee and tea.

So, how does a socially conscious consumer make informed choices about what coffee or tea they buy? How does one have any certainty about the sustainability of farming practices or the impact of their purchase on the farmers themselves?

A new blockchain initiative unveiled at this week’s Consumer Electronics Show (CES) 2020 in Las Vegas may shine a light on the way forward. Farmer Connect, an independent ecosystem of coffee farmers and the coffee industry, and IBM rolled out ‘Thank My Farmer’, a mobile app that allows consumers to view information drawn from a network of farmers, traders, roasters and brands.

Built using IBM’s blockchain food safety solution, the new app helps close the gap between a consumer’s coffee purchase and the farmer who grew the coffee beans. Using blockchain to ensure the integrity and security of the data, IBM Food Trust allows all coffee industry partners to share food information, creating a more transparent and trustworthy global food supply chain.

According to founder and president of Farmer Connect, David Behrends, the aim is to humanise each coffee drinker’s relationship with their daily cup of coffee. The app will allow consumers to play an active role in sustainability governance by supporting coffee farmers associated with their coffee brands. The app also gives consumers an opportunity to donate funds directly to farmers around the world, or to help fund sustainability projects in the farmers’ local communities.

Many in the food industry have been developing blockchain solutions to help make the supply chain traceable and more transparent. Last year, the 180-year-old tea producer Assam Company and US-based technology firm SmartFarms unveiled plans to develop a blockchain solution to trace tea leaves from the farm to the cup, together with a consumer app that would also allow consumers to thank farm workers directly.

Agricultural commodities typically pass through many intermediaries before being offered to consumers as a packaged product. For example, smaller coffee and tea farmers in developing nations may sell crops to larger producers, before produce changes hands between a number of exporters, importers, traders, roasters, distributors and retailers. The complexity of the supply chain and lack of technology at the source makes it prohibitively difficult to inform the consumer exactly how and where coffee was farmed.

In our globalised economy, commodity prices may change with seasonal highs and lows in consumption, especially good or poor crop harvests in the countries where its grown, currency exchange rates and new import tariffs. Coffee prices enjoyed a high of $3.06 per pound in 2011, but have been unstable ever since, falling by more than 40 per cent over the past three years to a low of less than $1 per pound last June.

Although prices have increased during the past few months, the extended instability of global coffee prices has left farmers in Africa, Asia and South America struggling to stay in business. Consequently, many farmers simply aren’t able to pay the wages to workers that they would like to.

Under normal circumstances, a coffee or tea drinker in Europe or the US may only be aware of the product brand and price, or perhaps the commodity prices reported in the news. Consumers may feel the impact via changes in product pricing, but few are normally aware of how swings in commodity prices affect the farmers and farm workers.

Fair trade labelling has helped some promote transparency and benefited fair trade farmers. However, it doesn’t solve the issue of how to bring transparency to global supply chains.

If these new initiatives using blockchain are successful, then consumers may soon be offered more certainty that the food brands they buy not only taste good, but are good for the farmers too.

This story was first published on The National.

December 30, 2019

Will AI take your job? Of course not, but that’s hardly the right question.

The semantics used by the technology industry about AI and its impact on jobs have started to grate on me a bit. The future of work is changing faster than ever before and it will drive many new opportunities and new career paths. In the short term, the reality is that a lot of people will lose their jobs, but that’s something no technology leader wants to be quoted as saying, in particular when they could be holding forth on our bright AI-powered future.

IBM CEO Ginni Rometty said – a couple of years ago now – that AI will impact 100 percent of current jobs, which, of course, is now common sense. AI’s impact on jobs is also a complex subject and its dangerous to try to sum it up in one simple concept. However, by and large, that’s what many tech leaders are doing, with “AI won’t take your job” as the reassuring umbrella message that the whole drive towards AI adoption seems to fly under. The answer is both straightforward and misleading. No, AI won’t take your job, anymore than a gun will shoot you: that requires a human.

The fly in the tech industry’s ointment is that their customers are not always ‘on message’. Many large employers have already commented over the past year that one of the benefits that AI brings to them is the ability to do more with less staff, some even going further and stating plainly that the technologies are allowing them to cut volumes of staff.

There are now a growing number of studies that highlight huge changes in the number of current jobs that will be phased-out due to the introduction of automation. In October, a report on the banking sector from Wells Fargo & Co. estimated 200,000 job cuts across the US banking industry over the next decade, including many customer service functions. Often, the big numbers in such reports are necessarily ‘fuzzy’. Statistics often include jobs that employers will phase out by head-count freezes, jobs that will no longer be specified for new operations, plus actual redundancies.

Forecasts for the elimination of certain jobs are embraced by the technology industry as evidence that the nature of work is changing and that old jobs must die in order for new, technology-enabled jobs to be created. One can already see from Linkedin’s top emerging jobs lists for 2019, that specialist roles in artificial intelligence development, robotics, data science and data security are all fast-growing. This is the crux of the now commonplace – but, as yet, unsubstantiated – argument that AI will create more jobs than it eliminates.

How much of ‘the future’s so bright’ narrative is used by the tech industry to distract us from the here and now? On conference platforms all over the world, big tech typically urges employers to focus about how AI can enhance productivity, help define new business models and benefit customers, and not to simply save costs by replacing workers. However, for any business that aims to be competitive in our global economy, must look at ways to cut costs as well as ways to increase efficiencies. As more AI-powered solutions are developed that reduce the need for human workers, more jobs are cut.

Food delivery platform Zomato announced that it was laying off some 600 people in September, claiming that most of these jobs will be automated following continued investment in technology systems.

Earlier in the year budget airline AirAsia confirmed that it had closed nine call centres as a result of its AI chatbot customer service project. No redundancies were mentioned and it’s assumed that most, if not all, call centres were outsourced.

Banks all over the world have used automation to cut countless thousands of jobs over the past ten years and AI will allow them to cut thousands more.

Meanwhile, global economic analysis firm Oxford Economics estimates that automation will eliminate up to 20 million manufacturing jobs worldwide by 2030.

According to the 2019 Harvey Nash / KPMG CIO Survey, one third of CIOs say their companies plan to replace more than 20 percent of job roles with AI/automation within 5 years, although 69 percent also believe new job roles will compensate for those lost. Many agree that the new technology-powered job roles created will compensate for current jobs lost. This also, clearly, means different things to different people. A new data science role may sound great when you’re at college or, perhaps, already involved in digital data, but not so much if you’re a call centre agent with 10 years’ experience who’s just been let go.

So, to me at least, it seems disingenuous for technology leaders to hide behind technicalities, calling out warnings of job losses as a result of AI as being misinformed, unjustified or not presenting the entire picture. Cost savings are a powerful driver of AI adoption and, for many organisations, those savings will be made by cutting jobs. There’s room for the tech industry to be a little more honest about that.

This story first appeared on Linkedin.