Big Ideas: “Use AI, Blockchain, and Edge Computing to reduce food waste and stabilize world hunger”with Somdip Dey

As a part of my series about “Big Ideas That Might Change The World In The Next Few Years” I had the pleasure of interviewing Somdip Dey. Somdip is an Embedded AI scientist at the University of Essex, UK and a Research Engineer at the Samsung R&D Institute, UK with more than 40 published peer-reviewed […]

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As a part of my series about “Big Ideas That Might Change The World In The Next Few Years” I had the pleasure of interviewing Somdip Dey. Somdip is an Embedded AI scientist at the University of Essex, UK and a Research Engineer at the Samsung R&D Institute, UK with more than 40 published peer-reviewed research papers in computer science. Somdip is a serial entrepreneur, and prior to pursuing research as an Embedded AI scientist, Somdip co-founded Codeepy Pvt. Ltd. and held a position as Managing Director at ReMe Basket Ltd. To keep up with his latest work in AI and Edge Computing, follow his personal website and connect with Somdip at LinkedIn or Twitter.

Thank you so much for joining us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

I come from a humble background. When I was born in Kolkata, India, my family used to live in a one-bed studio apartment with a leaky roof. But in order to provide me with a better life and education so that I can achieve anything in life, both of my parents worked hard, day and night. After completing my undergraduate studies and working for almost a year post graduation in India, I knew that I can’t just stop my pursuit of knowledge. I needed to pursue higher education in a foreign land to broaden my knowledge and outlook of the world. I ended up in the UK in 2013 pursuing my master’s in Advanced Computer Science at the University of Manchester. I’ve always envisioned myself as a scientist helping others with my knowledge of technology.

Coming from a country with a currency value less than the UK’s, I can’t help but convert the price of everything I buy in the UK to the value of the product in India. For example, while buying a pack of 6 gala apples, which costs £1 in 2013, I would calculate that the pack of apples would cost Rs 101 (£1 = Rs 101 back then), while the same pack of apples would cost no more than Rs 60 in Kolkata, India. Given the conversion rate, everything seems very expensive.

However, I am in the UK and not in India. Overtime, I started to accept the price without converting to India’s monetary value. In the beginning, I thought I might as well eat the seeds of the ‘so-expensive’ apple so I don’t waste any money. Although it has been almost over six years that I have been living in the UK, I have not forgotten my humble background.

I notice that everyday, we can’t help but waste food in some way or another. Everyone has heard of the saying ‘finish your food because there are many starving people in Asia’. But given our lifestyle, it’s practically impossible to avoid waste. Through empirical evidence, I realized that regardless of the mass awareness of that sentiment, food waste is still not taken as seriously as it could or should be. So, I took it upon myself to dig deeper into the obstacles that are preventing people from taking food waste more seriously through a technological lens, and discovered that current technological solutions that are available to deal with food waste are not ubiquitous and user friendly. And now, as an Embedded AI scientist at the University of Essex and a Research Engineer at the Samsung R&D Institute, I am developing embedded solutions to tackle issues like food waste leveraging the state-of-the-art Internet of Things (IoT) and Artificial Intelligence.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?

While pursuing my master’s at the University of Manchester in 2013, I was very certain that I would continue for my Ph.D. in Computer Science right after my master’s. Given my research profile then, I was extremely confident of my path, and already had a scholarship offer for a Ph. D opportunity. But, being younger and lacking wisdom, I didn’t realize that I can’t control everything around me, especially external factors, to make all my endeavors come true.

In May 2014, right before completing my master’s dissertation, my parents got in a car accident and resulted in severe injuries for both of them. My father was paralyzed in the accident. As the only child, I was not just responsible for the emotional support of my family, I was also responsible for the financial support as well. I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to be in the UK if it was not for my parents’ hard work and undying support of me. I felt that it was my time to be there for them as much as I can.

The issue was finances. If I go back to India and found a job, I would not be able to support my parents, especially with the cost of treatment. An engineer in India earns an average of £4,000 to £6,000 compared to £25,000 to £35,000 in the UK in 2014. It was a difficult choice, but I decided to stay in the UK for the job. At the same time, I let go of my dream of pursuing a Ph.D to focus on making enough money to help support my family. It would be a lie if I said I was not shattered from the inside with this decision, especially when I already had the scholarship offer. But, I felt responsible to be there for my family when they needed me.

Fast forward to 2018, and my parents made a good recovery. I was successful in supporting them from my job in the UK. So, in 2018, I decided to go back to the University to pursue my Ph.D and start work as an embedded AI science. Although this may not be an interesting story to many, for me, this story is very important because it taught me several life-long truths. The truths are:

  • No matter what your dreams and plans are, be prepared for derailment. Anything can happen. So, have more than one plan, and don’t be too stuck on your original plans.
  • If you really want something, and you work hard for it, it might come true. Just don’t lose your vision, and remember why you wanted it in the first place.

Can you tell us about your “Big Idea That Might Change The World”?

Have you heard of “foodonomics?” Don’t worry, most people haven’t. But you may have heard the term “food economics” from books on the economy of food products and services. Using “foodonomics”, we are leveraging food economics with the latest cutting-edge technology in AI, Blockchain and edge computing (Edge devices in the IoT), to create an ecosystem that would distribute food surplus to malnutritioned region and effective manage the food chain from production to sales to consumption. This is not going to just solve the issue of malnutrition and world hunger, it will also create a new industry for entrepreneurs.

“Foodonomics” leverages Blockchain, AI and edge computing in the following way:

First, by using Blockchain technology, we can track food easier in the production level. For example, we can trace the source of food at a supermarket, thus making it easier to keep track of food supply and security.

Second, by using AI technology in Edge devices, we can develop smart-carts, fridges and apps to keep track of food items and individual supply.

Whenever there is a food surplus in one region, we then leverage regional policies and laws to distribute the surplus to a region that needs it. So, next time someone says “eat your food because there are starving children in Asia,” we would make sure that for every leftover you have, the hungry children around the world gets a similar amount of food.

“Foodonomics” is not a product or a company but an idea to reduce malnutrition, food waste, and food shortage, and everyone is welcome to participate in this idea to make our planet a better place to live in.

How do you think this will change the world?

Food-related issue such as malnutrition, food waste, and food shortage is one of the longest running issues in the history of the world. According to the World Hunger Education Services in 2017, an average of 33% of 4 billion metric tons of food production was wasted around the world and 1 out of every 9 people on the planet went to bed with an empty stomach. Statistics from the same organization highlights that an average family in the UK wastes up to £700 of food. So, in 10 years, the total food waste cost of an average family can be up to £7,000, an amount that could be used towards the mortage of a new home.

Issues related to food waste affect not just the country, but it also affects the individual family.

“Foodonomics” will not be able to directly solve these issues, but it can give rise to a new industry that would inspire entrepreneurs and companies to contribute to solutions and jobs that indirectly solves food waste.

Keeping “Black Mirror” and the “Law of Unintended Consequences” in mind, can you see any potential drawbacks about this idea that people should think more deeply about?

Decades ago, mostly through comic books and Hollywood movies, we got our first glimpse of autonomous cars. Back then, it was science fiction. As technology improves, science fiction became reality, thus, becoming real science and the topic of many research studies.

We were not aware of how autonomous cars could go wrong. But once the science behind the technology is implemented in real life, the issues with it became an engineering problem. Slowly, we learn about all the things that could go wrong.

Similarly, it is hard to predict the issues that might arise to food security while we are in the research phase. There could be many things that can go wrong once the technology is implemented. This is part of the process. But rest assure, we will solve these issues one step at a time. I think this is the beauty of entrepreneurship, solving challengers as they occur, and creating new opportunities along the way.

Was there a “tipping point” that led you to this idea? Can you tell us that story?

When my parents got in the car accident, my father suffered severe injuries. He ended up in a coma and was admitted to the ICU for months after the accident. This is very expensive. Both of my parents were entrepreneurs in the fashion industry, and in order to help with the cost, my mother sold both of the companies and related assets. Although this helped, they still came up short.

At the time, I was working at the University and had very little money saved. Without thinking, I sent all the money to my mother. What I didn’t realize was that once I did that, I was left with nothing, and would not have gotten paid until the end of that week. I had some canned food to survive, but it wasn’t enough. I couldn’t reach out to my friends, for they were also struggling with money as students.

I felt ashamed to ask, and out of hunger and an instinct to survive, I did the only thing that came to me, and it was ‘dumpster diving’ to survive. I had never considered that before, but I guess hunger can make you do things you never thought you could.

Luckily, it was during July, when summer holidays were in session, and students have just moved out, leaving most of their things in bins or skip. A skip is British english, meaning a large, open-topped waste container. Out of hunger, I hoped I would find food in the skip behind my shared place, and you wouldn’t believe what I found! In a hurry, or maybe out of convenience, students would leave a lot of stuff there. I found unopened packs of apples, oranges, canned beans, mackerel, even a ‘Mi’ backpack with its unopened tag attached. (The bag was bright orange, and may have been left behind on purpose.) Seeing all of these, I can only thank God and said ‘thank you for sending help for my survival’. I took the bag, put all the unopened food items, and went back home. I survived that week.

It didn’t occur to me until a few months later that there’s a bigger opportunity hidden in this experience. I completed my master’s degree and graduated in December 2014. At the same time, I co-founded a tech company in Manchester named Codeepy , and I learned about a global hackathon hosted by Koding.

Codeepy actually started as a hackathon group, and we wanted to participate in Koding’s 2014 Global Hackathon. As we were brainstorming ideas for an app that we can develop in two days, I remembered my experience dumpster diving. I proposed developing a web platform that gives people the flexibility to share leftover food with others who need it. The team loved the idea, and we developed the app over night and submitted it into the competition.

We won! We were thrilled to learn that we won the “3Scale API Award” at Koding’s Global Hackathon and developed the world’s first “crowd-food sharing platform” back in 2014. We’re even more proud in that this idea led to several entrepreneurs developing their vision of the software to solve food waste.

Fast forward to 2017, I saw another opportunity. I ended up wasting food because I forgot I had them in the fridge. By the time I remembered, the food already expired. Using a sticky note or a reminder app can only help so much, but when you are very busy, it’s difficult to remember all the food that you have bought and to consume time in a timely manner.

I did an initial survey among my friends and family, and was surprised to find similar studies and statistics published by the World Hunger Education Services. To solve this challenge, I co-founded ReMe Basket Ltd, an app that reminds people of the expiration date of food items bought, giving users the ability to explore different recipes to use all the ingredients. In the cases where you can’t consume all the items on your own, you can use the app and share a note to those in your contacts to get it from you.

Right now, the app is only available on Android, but we plan to extend it to iOS, adding more features to make it easier to use.

All the aforementioned applications developed are part of the “Foodonomics” and there are many more solutions to solve food security related issues.

What do you need to lead this idea to widespread adoption?

An idea is nothing until it has its believers and followers. Similarly, an app requires users to propagate. “Foodonomics” requires more believers and followers, and we have to educate people regarding how serious the problems of food waste are. So, the first step to widespread adoption is to spread awareness.

What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why.

5 things that I wish someone told me before I started are:

  1. Entrepreneurship is not glamorous. Our media romanticizes entrepreneurship and entrepreneurs but the truth is that it is one of the hardest jobs in the world, filled with uncertainty and challenges. Through my experience, I have lost more hair during my time as an entrepreneur than as an engineer. But I love solving challenges.
  2. If you need a motivational speech to keep you going, then do not pursue entrepreneurship.If you are bootstrapping, it is very normal that you may not have a guide or a mentor in thebeginning. If you need someone to motivate you, I might suggest that you are in the wrong business. I started many projects in the past where my heart wasn’t in them, and it eventually failed until I found the project that motivates me.
  3. You will meet a lot of false gurus and mentors who want to join your venture. Beware of them.I would often get DM’s on LinkedIn and Twitter from others interested in joining my venture. Many will share how they can help me on my journey. Eventually, I’ve found that most of them are there only to receive the benefits. So, be cautious of these kind of people offering to be a mentor or partner.
  4. Don’t make decisions based on ego. Learn to accept what’s best for the business. During my time at Codeepy I was Director of Marketing and I “sucked” at it. Being a new co-founder and a C level executive of a company, I felt powerful and would ignore the ideas from employees working under me. That was a bad move. I had no experience in marketing, and coming from a technology background, I excelled in developing technology solutions. Since I was appointed as a Director of Marketing, I always felt threatened if a better idea came from someone else on my team, and I would argue against it. Later, I realized that it is better for the company if I stepped down and chose a different role. I learned that ego is not good, especially when you are a startup, and that every member plays an important role in the success of the business.
  5. You might fail. But this is not the end of the world.I started several projects that failed, and I felt disappointed every time. But along the way, I would remind myself that I have won anyway because I am still alive. Even if I fail something today, I will be fine tomorrow as long as I learn from my mistakes and find a new solution for next time.

Based on the future trends in your industry, if you had a million dollars, what would you invest in?

If I had a million dollars, I would definitely invest in research and development in IoT based solutions and products. Many people might not realize how much IoT plays in our daily life. By investing in the develop of IoT based solutions, we could develop products that can solve pressing challenges.

Which principles or philosophies have guided your life? Your career?

I do not follow one principle or philosophy. But, something my tutor taught me during my time at the University stuck with me. “Do not add to the existing pain in the world.” I feel that deeply and try to follow it everyday.

Can you share with our readers what you think are the most important “success habits” or “success mindsets”?

Success comes slowly and progressively. If you go to the gym once a week, you might not see the results you wanted. But if you go to the gym often, you will see results faster.

It’s the same with starting a new venture. It’s not just starting the venture, and then the work is complete. Challenges will start to appear after you start, and they will keep coming at you. To overcome challenges, you have to work hard every single day, and then one day, your goal is achieved. This is true for me and many other entrepreneurs. All entrepreneurs work hard every day, and slowly, they see their ideas take shape. So “Keep going without thinking about the reward at the end”.

Some very well known VCs read this column. If you had 60 seconds to make a pitch to a VC, what would you say?

Imagine investing in a technological solution that not only earns you a dividend but gives you an opportunity to know that your investment is solving one of the largest issues in the world-food waste. “Foodonomics” gives you this opportunity. It is the idea of creating technological solutions leveraging AI, Blockchain, and Edge Computing to reduce food waste and stabilize world hunger. I have already developed several technology solutions related to this in the form of applications and research papers. If you are interested in learning more, drop me a Tweet @somdipdey.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

You could follow me on LinkedInTwitter and Instagram to stay up to date on my work. I regularly post on topics related to AI and Edge Computing.

Thank you so much for joining us. This was very inspirational.

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