Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Forget GMOs. The Future of Food Is Data—Mountains of It

From Wired:

The Hampton Creek lab in San Francisco's SoMa neighborhood.
The lab at Hampton Creek. Josh Valcarcel/WIRE
Inside a squat building on San Francisco’s 10th Street, packed into a space that looks a lot like a high school chem lab, Hampton Creek is redesigning the food you eat. Mixing and matching proteins found in the world’s plants, the tiny startup already has created a reasonable facsimile of the chicken egg—an imitation of the morning staple that’s significantly cheaper, safer, and possibly healthier than the real thing—and now it’s working to overhaul other foods in much the same way.

At the back of the room, spread across the long stainless steel science desks, among the centrifuges, scales, bottles, and beakers, biochemists systematically extract proteins from plants like the Canadian yellow pea to analyze their makeup and behavior. Beside them, food scientists combine these proteins in new ways, mixing them with other natural substances to create something that looks, feels, and tastes like the foods we know today. In the next row over, chefs—including Chris Jones and Ben Roche, recruited from Chicago’s celebrated gastromolecular eatery, Moto—strive to turn these creations into something you could serve to your family: an omelet or some french toast or a chocolate chip cookie.

But if you walk up a set of stairs at the front of the building, ducking under a sign displaying a high-minded quote from Buckminster Fuller on the nature of change, you’ll find a different kind of scientist. There, seated at a row of desktop computers with flat-panel displays, a team of recently hired mathematicians is building an online database that one day could catalog the behavior of practically every plant protein on earth—a collection of digital information that could allow Hampton Creek to model the creation of new foods using computer software.

Led by Dan Zigmond—who previously served as chief data scientist for YouTube, then Google Maps—this ambitious project aims to accelerate the work of all the biochemists, food scientists, and chefs on the first floor, providing a computer-generated shortcut to what Hampton Creek sees as the future of food. “We’re looking at the whole process,” Zigmond says of his data team, “trying to figure out what it all means and make better predictions about what is going to happen next.”
The project highlights a movement, spreading through many industries, that seeks to supercharge research and development using the kind of data analysis and manipulation pioneered in the world of computer science, particularly at places like Google and Facebook. Several projects already are using such techniques to feed the development of new industrial materials and medicines. Others hope the latest data analytics and machine learning techniques can help diagnosis disease. “This kind of approach is going to allow a whole new type of scientific experimentation,” says Jeremy Howard, who as the president of Kaggle once oversaw the leading online community of data scientists and is now applying tricks of the data trade to healthcare as the founder of Enlitic....MORE