Concerns over potential misuse of artificial intelligence (AI) in the food industry loom large

Sylvain CharleboisThe rapid advancement of artificial intelligence (AI) technologies has significantly transformed various industries, and the food industry is no exception.

Its emergence in the retail and service sectors has also brought forth a plethora of opportunities and challenges. As AI algorithms become increasingly sophisticated, they offer food companies the ability to gain valuable insights into consumer behaviour, predict preferences, and even anticipate changes in dietary choices.

One recent study by Dalhousie University gauged the opinions, concerns, and expectations of Canadian consumers regarding the use of predictive analytics and AI within the food industry.

In collaboration with Caddle, we conducted a cross-national survey last month encompassing a substantial sample of 5,525 respondents. The first part of the survey was to gauge consumer awareness regarding the utilization of AI in various contexts, particularly within the food industry. Additionally, the survey aimed to explore consumer perspectives on the potential impact of AI on the job market, concerns related to privacy, and apprehensions surrounding the misuse of the food industry to harm populations.

Artificial intelligence in food industry

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The results were interesting.

When asked if they are worried about the use of AI in either the grocery industry or food service, 26.5 per cent are worried about the potential negative impact on jobs, while 21.8 per cent are concerned about privacy. Only 16.3 per cent believe it’s a good idea. When asked if they are willing to shop at a grocery store knowing the company uses AI, 30.2 per cent are comfortable with the concept, while 50.2 per cent don’t know how they feel about it. Many remain confused about AI.

When asked about the use of AI for personalized recommendations for groceries or restaurant menu items, 23.4 per cent think it’s a good idea. Other Canadians either think it is not necessary (31.6 per cent), are not sure how they feel about it (28.5 per cent), or are worried about privacy (16.5 per cent).

The survey also examined whether Canadians think AI could improve grocery shopping or restaurant experiences. A total of 47.7 per cent believe AI can offer faster checkout times at the grocery store, and 28.5 per cent believe AI can offer a more personalized experience. A total of 28.0 per cent believe AI can provide better product or dish recommendations.

In response to the question, “Will the use of AI in the grocery industry or restaurant sector become more widespread in the future?” the survey revealed that 48.3 per cent of Canadians believe AI will become more prevalent in these sectors. On the other hand, 36.8 per cent expressed uncertainty about the future adoption of AI.

In the survey, participants were asked about their level of trust in companies to use AI ethically within the grocery industry or restaurant sector. The results indicate that 40.3 per cent of respondents expressed a lack of trust in food companies’ ethical use of AI. Interestingly, this figure is nearly twice as high as the 21.9 per cent of Canadians who share the same sentiment towards food companies’ utilization of AI at present.

One of the questions posed in the survey aimed to gauge respondents’ opinions on the potential risks associated with the increasing utilization of AI in the food industry. Specifically, participants were asked whether they believed this growing trend could result in food supplies being exploited as weapons, thereby endangering consumers. Of the respondents, 27.0 per cent expressed concerns regarding this possibility, while a notable 48.2 per cent admitted to having no clear perspective.

In essence, most Canadians don’t know what to think of AI, but many fear it. Trust is the essential ingredient for a successful recipe in the food industry’s AI revolution. The report revealed a concerning disparity as the number of Canadians who don’t trust food companies with AI is nearly double those who do. Building trust through ethical practices and transparent use of AI will be vital to meet the evolving needs of consumers.

Dr. Sylvain Charlebois is senior director of the agri-food analytics lab and a professor in food distribution and policy at Dalhousie University.

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