AI Revolution in Food: Adapt or Perish, Warns AWS Exec

Generative AI is poised to revolutionize the food industry, according to Justin Honaman, head of worldwide retail and consumer goods GTM at Amazon Web Services. Speaking at the virtual ‘Generative AI Food Pioneers’ summit hosted by Israeli startup Tastewise last week, Honaman emphasized that businesses must engage with this technology now or risk becoming obsolete. He likened the impact of generative AI to transformative innovations such as the internet, the light bulb, and the printing press.

Honaman’s presentation was peppered with provocative questions like, “What are you doing today so you are not obsolete tomorrow?” He stressed that the inability to innovate has led many food and beverage brands, consumer packaged goods (CPG) brands, and retail brands to fail. “They get stuck in their own ways and can’t move quickly enough to stay relevant,” he said.

Implementing generative AI projects will require new skillsets, including design thinking, prompt engineering, critical thinking, data literacy, and change management. Honaman urged businesses to start experimenting now and emphasized that this initiative cannot be left solely to the IT department. “If you’re a businessperson, and you’re like, ‘that’s IT’s job.’ No, it’s your job. It is not just IT’s job to figure this out,” he said.

Honaman predicted that up to 90% of employees might need reskilling in the next five years due to this technology. He noted that he frequently engages with CMOS, chief supply chain officers, and board members of major brands who are eager to integrate generative AI tools into their operations.

At Amazon, what Honaman calls “traditional AI” is already deeply integrated into various aspects of the business. These include product recommendations, image analysis, fraud management in ecommerce, and contact center solutions. AI also powers the robots in Amazon’s fulfillment centers, Alexa devices, and the ‘Just Walk Out’ technology in Amazon stores. The same AI technology underpins Amazon One, which uses palm recognition for payments.

Generative AI, however, is opening new frontiers. Amazon has developed a text model that creates concise summaries of customer reviews, helping shoppers quickly understand the overall sentiment about a product without sifting through numerous individual reviews. Another innovation, ‘Diffuse to choose,’ uses a diffusion-based image-conditioned inpainting model to seamlessly blend product images into users’ personal photos, allowing customers to virtually try on products in their own environments.

Amazon has also launched Rufus, a virtual shopping assistant in beta mode. Rufus is trained on Amazon’s product catalog and information from across the web to provide a conversational shopping experience, helping users find and buy products through natural language interactions.

Honaman highlighted that many Amazon customers are already testing generative AI. For example, one beverage brand is using AI to generate images of concertgoers holding its products. This capability allows brands to create marketing materials rapidly without relying on external agencies. Generative AI can also be used to revise product descriptions, titles, and ad words quickly.

In brick-and-mortar retail, generative AI can generate store-specific planograms dynamically, optimizing product placement based on sales data, out-of-stock data, and sell-through data. This capability can significantly streamline the work of category managers and shopper marketers.

Moreover, AI is enhancing loyalty programs by leveraging customer data to tailor marketing initiatives and product return offers. It can also convert sketches and mood boards into high-quality designs and customize products for individual consumers.

At Conagra Brands, generative AI is helping to understand consumers’ unmet needs. Megan Bullock, director of predictive science (emerging demand) at Conagra, explained that the company uses behavioral data to gain insights, rather than relying on traditional surveys. This approach allows them to understand what consumers are actually doing, rather than what they say they do.

The implications of generative AI for the food industry are vast. From personalized marketing to dynamic store layouts, businesses that adopt this technology can stay ahead of the competition. Those that fail to innovate risk being left behind in a rapidly evolving marketplace.

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