When AI Speaks For Us

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With the advent of Alexa and Siri, we've gotten more comfortable with the idea of talking with artificial intelligence software. But in those interactions, the AI tends to be standing in for something inanimate - a toaster, a kitchen timer, maybe a light switch. A couple of recent announcements, however, suggest that this relationship is about to get a lot more complicated.

Essential Products, a smartphone manufacturer started by Andy Rubin, creator of the Android OS, has announced the development of a new phone that will take on many of its users' social responsibilities. It will automatically respond to texts and emails, and can take care of scheduling tasks without any outside input. Because of its focus on autonomy, it will also look less like a conventional smartphone, with a smaller screen and an emphasis on control via voice; both of these developments line up with some predictions we made late last year.

At the same time, Google has announced that by the end of the year, its Duplex voice assistant software will be available on its Pixel smartphones. You may remember Duplex from its slightly creepy demo back in May, where the next-gen assistant made a hair salon appointment over the phone. Complete with "um" and "ah" pauses, it completed its task without the human on the other end realizing they had been talking with a ‘bot.

If you use Gmail, you may have already had a glimpse into the strangeness of this future. Google Smart Compose launched earlier this year, giving users suggestions for how to reply to emails - "Ok, sounds great!" or "Let me check on that" - and it is continuing to enhance its ability to auto-complete common phrases or introductions.

While this sounds initially very convenient, we anticipate some serious concerns emerging about just who we really are when we use these systems. Did your boss's email really "sound great" or was that just the closest approximation of what you really would have said? How polite do we need to be when we answer the phone, knowing the caller on the other end is most likely a 'bot - even if it's calling on behalf of Grandma? Did you really want to go skydiving, or did your phone just see that you had some free time this weekend and made a few calls? We expect to see questions of trust and honesty emerging alongside these technologies, with consumers pushing for new ways to understand and experience true human connections and know that their decisions - and their personalities - are truly their own.

A Reckoning for Plastics?

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You may have replaced your plastic water bottles with BPA-free versions, and switched to cans with BPA-free linings, but don't think you're safe just yet. Increasingly, Bisphenol-A is looking like just the tip of a toxic iceberg.

A recent report from the American Academy of Pediatrics, described in the New York Times, listed a wide range of chemicals that appear to disrupt the body's hormones: the aforementioned Bisphenols, but also Phthalates, PFCs and Perchlorates – all very common chemicals associated with food packaging. 

As fatigue from avoiding an ever-growing list of chemicals and plastic types sets in, more consumers can be expected to begin assuming that all plastics are the enemy – and manufacturers will need to find wholly new solutions if they want to stay ahead. Sourcing and designing new plastic-free packaging will be a major challenge, but as the scientific evidence mounts, it's one that manufacturers will need to face head-on.

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The Summer Fancy Food Show in a Blink

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Didn't have time to make it to this year's Summer Fancy Food Show? We've got you covered. We did the legwork, talked to vendors from around the world and sampled amazing new foods, drinks and ingredients in a search for the trends we will be seeing in 2019 and beyond - and we managed to squeeze it all into just two minutes. 

Robots at the Tipping Point

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In 2014, the idea that in just a few short years we would all be talking to intelligent virtual assistants in our homes may have seemed impossibly optimistic. But a confluence of impressive technology, deft marketing and perhaps a little zeitgeist-bump from Spike Jonze's film Her came together to make a sci-fi fantasy into reality faster than anyone could have anticipated. And this year, it's starting to feel like we've arrived at a similar pivotal moment in robotics. 

Long relegated to assembly lines, the last few years have seen increasingly capable droids taking over distribution warehouses, stocking store shelves and flying overhead. 

Even recent stumbles - a series of highly publicized self-driving car accidents, and Tesla's decision to swap out some automated manufacturing systems for old-fashioned human operators - feel more like corrections on the path to greater automation than a change of course. 

The next wave of robots are promising incredible dexterity, emotive personalities and, most importantly, the support of some major consumer tech ecosystems. And instead of lurking in factory shadows, they'll be in our homes, cooking our food and taking our selfies. 

SEE BELOW FOR AN EXCERPT FROM OUR CYBORG CULTURE MACRO TREND

 
 

This New Industry Is Growing Like A... Weed

Marijuana is having its cultural moment in the sun. Legalization campaigns are finding success around the US, and a new generation of entrepreneurs, chefs and designers are reexamining every aspect of the marijuana experience, transforming a once-illicit practice into a stylish - and socially acceptable - lifestyle.  

Significant credit for this push should be given to CBD oil. CBD is a hemp extract that lacks THC (the chemical compound in cannabis that gets users "high") but is believed to hold a nebulous range of benefits centered largely around reducing stress and inflammation. Though the jury is still out on its efficacy, CBD has been popping up everywhere, helping to put forward an image of marijuana as a mainstream supplement. Our intrepid testers, Penn and Dave, decided to see if a little CBD would enhance their workday - check out our video to see how the test went.

Looking Beyond Amazon Go

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Amazon's first Amazon Go store opened on the 22nd, and the high-tech checkout-free grocery concept hasn't really left the news cycle since. Journalists and YouTubers have shoplifted, with varying degrees of success; a community petition has circulated to make the store accept SNAP foodstamp benefits, and alarms have been raised about the threat it poses to existing retail jobs.

The hype surrounding Amazon Go has been so powerful, in fact, that you could be forgiven for missing some quieter - but equally high-tech - moves Amazon has been making toward sewing up the entire food experience.

At CES, gadget maker Ovie revealed SmarterWare, a smart food storage system that syncs with Alexa. Simply say what you're putting in each container, and toss them in the fridge. The virtual assistant will determine each item's time until spoilage and alert you when your leftovers start to get a little dodgy. 

Alexa has also been given the ability to control select microwaves, with Whirlpool the first to integrate the expanded API into their devices. She can even listen to a description of what you're cooking and determine the correct preset. A conventional oven is on the way, too, but we're just looking forward to hearing a voice tell us our food is ready and finally bid adieu to the five beeps.

Amazon's plan for retail dominance extends beyond its own Go and Whole Foods stores, too - a pilot program here in New York has placed Echo devices inside the Bottle Rocket Wines and Spirits store to allow shoppers to consult Alexa before buying a bottle of whiskey. The assistant has been set up to only reference items available in-store, and uses a custom "Bottle Genius" skill set to make sure customers leave with the perfect single malt.

Amazon has shown an incredible ability to make a niche for itself in every aspect of consumers' lives. It will take time for the Amazon Go concept to expand significantly, but by leveraging Alexa, Amazon is rapidly laying down the beginnings of an infrastructure - and an accompanying lifestyle - that will make sure consumers stay within their ecosystem right up to the first bite.

What We're Consuming: The Philips Wake-Up Light

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Waking up in New York City on cold winter mornings is a real challenge. The sun is barely up and even when it is, the tall building next to mine blocks out most of the early rays. 

I was determined to make this winter different. I purchased a Philips Wake-Up Light and as soon as it was delivered, I was able to set it up in under 15 minutes. I performed a few test wake-ups over a weekend to be sure I had chosen the best settings for me and when the following Monday morning arrived, I woke up feeling refreshed, calm and well-rested.  
 

Now, I normally wake up long before the alarm's light slowly fades in, ready to start my day. My neighbors probably like me a little better since they don't have to hear my snooze go off every 10 minutes through the paper-thin apartment walls, and I no longer have to cycle through all the various alarm sounds on my smartphone, trying to find a "less irritating" sound. 

For anyone who has had the pleasure of waking up to the sun, this alarm clock is the closest thing you'll get outside of a beach holiday or living in California. It's the best alarm clock I've ever had, and one that I've already recommended to many friends who, like me, have trouble getting out of bed. And if that's not you as well, then please tell me your secret.  

- Hannah

CE's Holiday Watchlist

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Ah, the Holidays! All year we look forward to gathering together with our extended families, catching up with distant relatives and getting reacquainted with our roots. And just as quickly, we do whatever we can to retreat to the safety of the TV. 

This year, we thought we'd put together a recommended watchlist that will help you use that me-time to see some great shows and maybe even learn something too. Just try to give family time a chance before opening up Netflix, OK?

Television

Abstract: The Art of Design (Netflix)

This beautifully-produced series of one-off profiles looks at designers in every corner of the field, and never ceases to inspire. You'll finish the series with a newfound appreciation for the objects around you, and maybe even some new creative tools in your toolbox.

Cooked (Netflix)

With beautiful cinematography, Michael Pollan explores cooking traditions around the world and the power they have to shape who we are. Is there anything more beautiful than a steak being seared in slow motion?

Black Mirror (Netflix)

This one's a little dark, but we don't think a show exists that has been more prescient about how technology is changing - and challenging - our society, though Mr. Robot would have to be a close runner-up. Only for those of strong constitution.

Samurai Gourmet (Netflix)

Netflix Japan produced some of the most original series of 2017, and this is one of our favorites. When an introverted retiree impulsively orders a beer with lunch, his "inner samurai" is released, and he begins a journey of self-discovery by exploring the restaurants of his home town.

Search Party (TBS)

If you find Broad City's humor a little, well, broad, consider checking out this more nuanced black comedy, a sort of Millennial take on Scooby Doo that stars Alia Shawkat of Arrested Development. 

Neo Yokio (Netflix) -

This ersatz-anime is a cultural and stylistic melting pot: created by Ezra Koenig of indie pop band Vampire Weekend, it was animated in Korea, stars Jaden Smith and Tavi Gevinson (with Susan Sarandon and Steve Buscemi in supporting roles) and is packed with Gen Z ennui and clever New York City references.

Travel Man (YouTube)

In each episode, the wonderfully dry Richard Ayoade (The IT Crowd) and a celebrity guest spend 48 hours in a new city, attempting and sometimes even succeeding to fit in with the locals. We've all been there. 

I Love You America, With Sarah Silverman (Hulu)

In a year where our nation felt more divided than ever, Sarah Silverman travels across the country on a mission of empathy, looking to find the common threads that tie us together. Roughly structured as a talk show, this is still highly experimental TV, and when it pays off it's great.

Don't have time to get sucked into a two-season binge session? We've also got some movie recommendations:

In Theaters

The Shape of Water

Director Guillermo del Toro's Pan's Labyrinth is a favorite in our office, and his latest creation is a return to form. Riffing on The Creature From the Black Lagoon, del Toro cleverly explodes the monster genre to create something with more soul than scares. If you need an excuse to get out of the house, this is it.

The Florida Project

Sean Baker's visually striking film about life below the poverty line in Florida is never condescending; it portrays its characters with empathy, compassion and humor. 

Lady Bird

It's a little disorienting to see a film set historically in 2003, but Greta Gerwig's directorial debut is a powerful coming-of-age story and, based on Rotten Tomatoes rankings, "the best-reviewed film of all time." We think it's well-deserved.


And if you'd rather stay in:

Streaming

What the Health (Netflix)

This Joaquin Phoenix-produced documentary became the Food Inc. of 2017, turning a critical eye toward the meat industry and some of the world's leading health organizations. Though it has since seen some backlash, it's still crucial viewing to understand the motivations of today's leading-edge consumers.

Garlic Is As Good As Ten Mothers (FilmStruck)

Anyone who loves food can appreciate Les Blank's 1980 documentary, an ode to garlic across cultures. Seen today, it's a perfect time capsule of an era before food blogs, Instagram and celebrity chefs (though Alice Waters and Chez Panisse make a welcome appearance), and it may just inspire you to turn off the TV and spend a little more time around the kitchen table with your family.

 

Finally, a podcast for when you're on the road:

Alex Guarnaschelli on Food

This episode of EconTalk features wonderfully irreverent Food Channel star Alex Guarnaschelli speaking candidly about the realities of opening and running a restaurant. Eye-opening listening for those of us who enjoy eating out.

Happy watching (and socializing) from everyone here at CE. We wish you an inspiring, safe, creative new year!

The Future of Fresh: Reporting from the Food Loves Tech Expo

When you think of 'fresh,' what comes to mind? Vegetables harvested by a farmer early in the morning, still covered in dew? A truck of produce arriving at the farmers' market before the crack of dawn? A trek into the forest to forage for mushrooms?

At this year's Food Loves Tech conference, it was clear that a new paradigm is emerging - a way of producing food that leverages technology not to create artificial or processed foods, but to enable restaurants and consumers to get whole foods at their freshest. 

We talked to four companies changing the way we think about fresh.

Click any of the links below to watch a specific interview:

Seed Sheet, a startup that bills itself as the Blue Apron of gardening

PicoBrew, maker of smart countertop beer-brewing devices

Gotham Greens, an urban farm with locations in New York and Chicago

Smallhold, a mushroom farming subscription service used by restaurants like Mission Chinese

Or watch the entire video here:

 

 

Why the iPhone X Makes Google Glass More Relevant Than Ever

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Today, it's easy to think of Google's circa-2013 experimental wearable as a technological dead-end. The web is full of think-pieces describing Glass as a solution in search of a problem, a project driven more by engineering and its designers' love of sci-fi than by consumer insight or marketplace research. But with the launch of the iPhone X, we think the nerdy headset is ripe for a reappraisal.

As you watched the big iPhone X reveal, did you note a phantom ache in your forearms? With each augmented reality app announcement, the X looked a little heavier, a little more awkward to hold at eye level. It's amazing to be able to watch a baseball game while the iPhone overlays player names and stats in real time, but how long can you really hold your phone up in your line of sight? How many rounds of a virtual tabletop strategy game can you play before you'll wish you could just put the phone down for a second without breaking the illusion?

The iPhone's strength is increasingly in its features, while its physicality - even as Apple strives to make it more sleek and jewel-like - has become a burden. Industrial designer Philippe Starck recently noted that the smartphone appears to be approaching the logical conclusion of design:

"All the intelligent parts of human production go with the strategy of dematerialization — less and less and less materiality, more and more and more intelligence. The computer was a very good example, and now the telephone is a fantastic example. That’s because in a telephone, only the image and the sound is important. And yes, we work to have less and less and less and less. ...That’s why we are really, with the telephone, in front of the end of dematerialization."

This philosophy appears to be on Apple's mind, with their continued development of the Apple Watch. Building in more sensors while also enhancing its autonomy, they seem close to cutting the Watch's link to the iPhone completely. And in the home and car, virtual assistants from every major technology player can perform many of a phone's functions without any display at all.

Siri or an Apple Watch will never fully replace the iPhone, though, because at the core of the device's appeal is its camera. A next-generation device will still need to see, and to relay that vision - filtered through AR - to its user, and thus a Glass-style headset starts to look less like a novelty and more like an inevitability.

Glass never really died, of course; earlier this summer, Google announced the launch of an Enterprise Edition model, which focuses on enhancing workers' productivity. And Microsoft's Hololens is a similar device with far more impressive visual specs, overlaying 3D AR imagery over the wearer's field of view. 

Thus it seems as though Apple is playing the long game; riding the success of the iPhone, they can afford to let Google take all of the lumps for launching an odd, polarizing first-generation device, while waiting for consumers to become more comfortable with the concept of augmented reality. And when iPhone fans' arms finally get tired, we have to assume Apple will be ready with another big reveal.

Is Film the New Vinyl?

Everything analog is cool again. The revival started with vinyl records, and in the past couple years we've seen it expand to encompass VHS and even cassette tapes. But perhaps the biggest analog format of all - film photography - has taken longer to build momentum. In the last year, though, interest has been increasing dramatically, and manufacturers are taking notice.

New York has emerged as an epicenter of the new film photo scene, and we recently sat down with two of the movement's biggest figures - Kyle Depew of Brooklyn Film Camera and Geoff Berliner of the Penumbra Foundation - to learn more about why young people are snapping up vintage cameras, reviving once-defunct film brands and diving back into the darkroom.

Sampling an Insect Sundae

Chapulines, or fried grasshoppers (also sometimes called crickets), are a popular snack in Mexico. But they can be a little tough to find here in NYC - so when we heard that La Newyorkina was offering a limited-edition ice cream with the little guys on top, we had to jump at the chance to give it a try.

Fancy Food Show Trend Bites

New York's Summer Fancy Food Show is the largest specialty food event in North America, where vendors from around the world come to show off their latest creations.

Increasingly, the show floor feels divided into two separate worlds: booths representing old-guard, traditional "gourmet" products in the European tradition sit next to booths manned by hip creatives bringing fringe food trends into the mainstream.

We scoured the show floor for the most interesting leading-edge products, and talked with creative, enthusiastic young entrepreneurs exploring new ingredients and bringing innovation, functional enhancements and new benefits to the marketplace.

Drink Your Mushrooms

Featuring Säpp and Simply Auri


Energy, Naturally

Featuring White Label and Zest Tea


Fresh Refreshment

Featuring Cide Road and Mansi


Juice Gets Souped Up

Featuring Fawen and Züpa


Maker-style Bone Broth and Kimchi

Featuring Mama O's and One Culture

Amazon Buys Whole Foods

With the news today that Amazon would be purchasing Whole Foods in a deal valued at $13.7 billion, the online retailer has made a clear commitment to physical retail. Amazon has experimented with grocery store concepts in the past; we reported on their checkout-free Amazon Go concept store late last year. 

But more importantly, Amazon now has a brick-and-mortar foothold in valuable locations around the country where well-heeled, tech-savvy Millennials and Gen Xers are raising families and shopping for all kinds of items - not just organic groceries. Amazon was also recently granted a patent for software that prevents in-store shoppers from comparing prices online, suggesting that their commitment to physical stores is strong enough that they are willing to put time and energy into stemming the showrooming trend that has plagued other retailers.

Amazon maintains that, for now, Whole Foods will retain its current branding and identity. And with Whole Foods' trusted brand and name recognition, this sounds like a savvy short-term move. Amazon's greatest strengths are in back-end software, logistics and distribution, and these could be used to improve the stores' performance behind the scenes while also turning them into distribution points for the existing Amazon Fresh online grocery service. 

With this acquisition it seems certain that Amazon is going to become a much bigger part of its more affluent customers' lives in the coming years.

 

The Next Unicorn Latte?

It's a massive phenomenon in Taiwan, Malaysia and China, but cheese tea is only beginning to gain notice here in the US. Click through to watch as our intrepid testers, Penn and Dave, pay a visit to Happy Lemon in Flushing, Queens and get a taste of what might be 2018's hottest drink.

Talking with Nora and Phoebe of Aida

It's well known that millennials aren't hitting the town as often as previous generations - and who can blame them when there are so many great shows to binge? But it doesn't mean they've given up on entertaining, either - particularly if a glass of wine is involved.

To learn more about how 20-somethings are bringing the party home, we sat down with Nora O'Malley and Phoebe Connell of hip NYC wine bar Lois to discuss their latest venture, a line of packaged snacks called Aida that promise to elevate the cheese plate for the Netflix generation.

Will Travel for Likes

  Image via  On The Roofs

Image via On The Roofs

By now, it's well-known that millennials tend to value experiences over possessions. After all, you can get dozens of great Instagram and Snapchat shots on a trip to Havana, but sharing any more than a couple choice pics of your new ultra-hip Proba rug becomes an obvious humblebrag.

So how are millennials utilizing their vacation time for maximum social media impact in 2017?

The main challenge for a traveling millennial is avoiding overexposed locations. As more and more of the world gets snapped and filtered, enterprising young travelers find themselves needing to push the boundaries to get a photo that hasn't been seen before - even if it means taking their lives in their hands.

A better way to find some fresh experiences off the beaten path would be to use an app like Kindred, which connects travelers with friends-of-friends living in their destination city. With a local guide, the likelihood of having a No Reservations-style food adventure increases dramatically, and they may even know the best place to snap some killer sunset timelapses.

Unfortunately, another option is to visit locations that won't be around - at least in their current form - for much longer. "Last-chance tourism" is predicted to be a major trend in 2017, as vacationers flock to picturesque, sinking locations like the Maldives and Venice, and the rapidly-disappearing Great Barrier Reef.

The ultimate shareable vacation, though, might be one few millennials can afford. Elon Musk's SpaceX recently announced that it is hoping to send paying passengers on a trip around the moon sometime in 2018. While figures have yet to be announced, it can be assumed that the passengers are paying well into the tens-of-millions for their round trip - but we expect the toughest part will be waiting until they get back to upload their pics.

Fake Products, Real Products

It seems harder and harder to tell just what's real anymore, and sometimes even we get duped. In our last Blink Report, we highlighted Fail Chips, a brand of pre-crushed potato chips that was being advertised as part of a massive promotional effort from email marketing company Mail Chimp. We were quick to write off the chips as just another viral stunt, but this story has one more twist...

Crunch Time for the Super Bowl

With the Super Bowl coming up this Sunday, we find our thoughts turning to salty, crunchy snacks. Fortunately, we're not the only ones: everyone seems to have a new idea that elevates, transforms or even parodies the humble chip. Below are some of our favorite examples of real (and tongue-in-cheek) crunchy snack innovation - perhaps they'll spark some creative ideas for your own party.

London now boasts a restaurant that serves chips - er, crisps - exclusively. It's called, somewhat confusingly, HipChips, but we assure you that they're talking about the crunchy stuff, not fries. Grub Street has the lowdown.

Taco Bell is once again stretching the bounds of Tex-Mex, this time with a nacho chip made entirely from chicken. The Volcano Crispy Chicken Chip is currently being tested only in Knoxville, Tennessee, so start booking those flights.

Looking for something a little higher-end?  Swedish brewery St. Eriks has launched a potato chip designed to pair perfectly with their premium beers. And it comes with a premium price tag: roughly $55 for precisely 5 chips, nestled in a very handsome gift box. They're currently sold out, but perhaps you can snag a pack or two for next year's party.

Tostitos has chosen to focus not on the chip itself, this year, but the bag: their limited-edition Super Bowl bag features a built-in alcohol detector (it can't officially be called a breathalyzer), and can even call you an Uber in case you've overindulged.

And, only fitting as the last item on our list, is FailChips, a brand of chips that have been pre-crushed. If you love those bottom-of-the-bag bits, just tear off the corner of the FailChip package and pour them right into your mouth. Sadly, this one is just a parody brand created by Mail Chimp as part of a marketing campaign. But we do think they've really hit on something here...

Red States? Blue States? Organic States

Red States? Blue States? Organic States

It would be an understatement to say that 2016 has been a divisive year. It seems increasingly like America is two nations, existing on parallel tracks in separate realities. And yet, there is one unlikely factor that unites them both: organic food.    

A new study from the Pew Research Center finds that opinions on organic and non-GMO foods are largely shared across party lines in the United States. No matter who you voted for, you're still likely to believe that organic food is healthier (though it may be too expensive for you to buy consistently), and you're just as likely to be concerned about the safety of GMO products.    

As the rare trend with bipartisan support, it doesn't look like organic is going away anytime soon. It's a juggernaut, and over the last ten years (twenty, if you're particularly hip) it has been a defining force in food culture, lending its aesthetic and ethos even to products that didn't actually carry the USDA stamp. In fact, it's those peripheral signifiers - the near-ubiquitous reclaimed wood, letterpress-style fonts, and folksy language - that we think are most likely to change in 2017.

But the food itself? It's sticking around, by popular demand.