From the editor's desk

The coming revolution of AI in dietary supplements

By Hank Schultz

- Last updated on GMT

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Getty Images
How will technology alter the way supplements are manufactured and marketed? Technical advances have not been as disruptive in this field as they have in others, but changes are surely coming.

Artificial intelligence is a topic of fervent debate in tech circles these days. The term refers to computer software designed in such a way that it can alter its parameters in real time as a response to data inputs. It is designed to learn, in other words.

AI shows great promise in some industrial applications such as self driving cars, guidance systems for unmanned aircraft and other applications.

AI in transportation, health care

Unmanned vehicles are already on the road. In 2016, Budweiser made headlines when it shipped beer from its Fort Collins, CO brewery to a distribution facility in Colorado Springs. There was no driver at the wheel of the truck during its 120-mile journey​ on a freeway that went straight through Denver.

Uber and Google have been testing self driving cars on urban streets for several years now. Uber has had a fairly open corporate strategy of developing its ride sharing platform so that it would have a software suite ready to integrate with a fleet of self driving cars. The human drivers were mere stopgaps in that loop.

While the testing has shown promise as well as pitfalls (including at least one pedestrian death), it has been expensive. As Uber nears the date for its IPO, court filings revealed that it has been burning through $20 million a month​on the autonomous cars project.

AI and the robotics it drives is also transforming health care. According to a BMJ​ article​, regulatory hurdles and a lack of incentives to share data have stunted the growth of AI in health care in the US.

AI showing up in supplements

The infiltration of AI into the manufacture and marketing of dietary supplements has been slower than in other sectors. Given the massive investments involved that’s not much of a surprise. The dietary supplement industry is, after all, a mere blip on the national economic scene when compared to other industries even given its strong growth over the decades.

Nevertheless, it has been making inroads. Recently BASF announced the launch of what it claims is the first supplement ingredient developed by AI​. The ingredient, called PeptAIde, is said to be a combination of plant-derived peptides to help modulate inflammation.

The search for new bioactive peptides is an obvious field of opportunity for AI. There are potentially tens of thousands of these or more, as each unique protein can be partitioned many different ways.  The technology could also simplify the search for new ingredients of other sorts, such as among the many classes of bioactive molecules found in botanical raw materials.

AI application in formulation, manufacturing

The technology could have other applications, too. Reports from product performance in the field could be analyzed by a suitably programmed AI suite to inform future product development. With the proper inputs and the right set of rules, an AI setup could presumably much more quickly discern why a formulation was not working as well as expected and could suggest ways in which it could be tweaked to make it better.

And once that hurdle was conquered, an AI controller could also manufacture the new formulation. Already there are automated blender systems that can take powdered material from the loading dock right through to finished blends. It’s not much of a leap for an AI system to suggest what new ingredients that should be purchased, arrange the flow of material from the loading dock to the blenders, and direct the blends to a powder filling line, a tableting machine or what have you. 

The debate comes in when thought leaders consider to what extend AI technology should be integrated into processes previously directed by humans. This is essentially an ethical question, not a technical one.

Tesla CEO and serial tech entrepreneur Elon Musk is famously vocal about the existential threat AI could pose to the future of the human race​. It’s a case of life imitating art, if you are willing to call science fiction art.

Individual genius

In the supplement realm, many products are said to be the products of a man or woman’s individual genius, and their passion for helping people to be healthier. Some are said to represent the accumulated knowledge of centuries when they come out of traditional systems of herbal medicine.

Much of the air would leak from that balloon if a supplement came to be known as the product of an algorithm that tweaked a formula to fit in better with what consumers are buying. Sort of a supplement industry version of those Facebook ads, advertising products offered by companies you’ve never heard of. Companies with names like Into the Wild selling hiking clothing, or Beautiful Life selling bathroom deodorizers.

Streamlining to what extent?

Surely there will be continued streamlining in manufacturing of supplements and fewer workers will be needed in the future. This has been the story of manufacturing of all kinds of products. According to a Pew Research study, US manufacturing output almost doubled in the 1987 to 2017 time frame​, while manufacturing employment fell from 17.5 million to 12.4 million in the same period. 

To what extent this streamlining will take humans out of the dietary supplement formulation and manufacturing loop remains to be seen. And to what extent it should is a question for the ethical thought leaders of the industry.

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