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Worst. AI. Ever.


The one thing we were all hoping for from climate change was the end of ketchup. But now look at AI getting in the way of History.

Alvarez’s version of assisted evolution relies on a simpler strategy. Instead of using genetic modification, which targets specific genes, his team uses machine learning models to seek out desirable traits—like drought or heat tolerance—in both cultivated plants and their wild cousins. Then an AI-enabled recommendation system suggests which crossbreeds might produce the best results for taste, ease of production, and resilience.

Wild strawberries, for example, are much more drought and heat tolerant than the ruby behemoths available in most supermarkets today, but they are small, and easier to bruise, which makes shipping long distances harder. The AI can suggest which strains of the wild strawberries should be crossed with domesticated breeds to make a larger, tastier, and climate-adapted successor. Horticulturalists have been doing that kind of cross breeding for centuries—it’s how we got the domesticated strawberry in the first place—but AI eliminates the trial and error, making the process faster. Once a potential cross breed is identified, the scientists go to the greenhouse to try it out, manually fertilizing the plants, planting the resulting seeds, and then waiting to see what comes up.

In addition to his strawberries, Alvarez has a couple of AI predicted crosses growing in Avalo’s North Carolina greenhouse: drought tolerant rice, broccoli with softer, more palatable leaves (to reduce food waste) and, of course, heat-resistant tomatoes. The hard part now is the waiting. While computers can speed up the selection process, growth is still on nature’s timeline. “We can’t make the plants flower and go through that development cycle any faster. The best thing we can do now is produce new varieties in a couple of years,” says Alvarez, instead of the 7-10 years it would take for the more conventional process. Computers may be able to accelerate evolution, but it’s still not fast enough to save ketchup for the summer BBQ season, or tomato sauce for next winter’s spaghetti and meatballs. “If people can hang on for the next few years, I think there’s a really good chance we can build something that is much more climate resilient,” says Alvarez. “In the meantime we just have to hope for good rains and cool summers.” Not just for securing the ketchup supply, but for the sake of all our condiments.

I mean, the loss of most of our fruits and vegetables seems suboptimal on one hand, but on the other hand, the elimination of ketchup.

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