By Esat Dedezade, Managing Editor, Microsoft News Centre – Europe
Over 1,000 years ago, travelling monks migrated from mainland Europe to discover new worlds. Their paths led them to Scotland and Ireland, and among their collective wisdom was the knowledge of distillation – the process of extracting and purifying liquid.
Lacking the vineyards and grapes from their original lands, they began to ferment grain mash – a mixture of water, grain and yeast – and in doing so, introduced the first whisky to the world.
Derived from the Gaelic word uisce, meaning water, distilled alcohol was known in Latin as aqua vitae, or water of life. This was translated into Old Irish as uisce beatha, before various iterations in early English gave us the whisky (or whiskey) we know today.
Since these early beginnings, whisky production has spread to all corners of the globe. From Ireland and Scotland, to Japan, the US, Australia and more, this ancient art has traversed cultures and boundaries, with each distillery infusing their unique soul into each blend.
Sweden-based Mackmyra Whisky is one such distillery. Founded in 1999 after eight friends decided to create their own whisky, it has since won several international awards, and its Master Blender has recently been inducted into Whisky Magazine’s hall of fame. The distillery’s ambitions, however, reach much further.
Together with Finnish tech company Fourkind and Microsoft, Mackmyra is creating the world’s first whisky developed with artificial intelligence (AI). In an industry synonymous with deep-rooted tradition, human expertise and craftsmanship, what happens when 1,000-year-old techniques meet advanced 21st century technology?
It’s all in the blend
To better understand the role of an AI distiller, we first need to understand what gives whisky its distinct character. Whiskies aren’t just differentiated by their different ingredients, but also by the charred wooden casks they’re stored in. Rather than mere containers, the casks themselves play a vital role in giving each blend its unique flavour.
When whisky is first distilled, it’s a clear liquid that can have an elegant or a smoky character. To get the rich aroma, flavour and colour we’re used to seeing, this clear form, known as new make, needs to spend at least three years (usually much longer,) in wooden casks. This is the maturation phase, where the all-important flavour infusion takes place.
Over time, whiskies slowly begin to take on the colour, aroma and flavours from the casks in which they’re stored, which also includes the flavours and aromas of their previous contents, such as bourbon, sherry, wine or other spirits. “From these casks, we can generate hundreds of thousands of different whiskies,” states Angela D’Orazio, Master Blender at Mackmyra.
Master Distillers can spend their whole lives meticulously tasting, tweaking and experimenting to create the best flavours possible, turning acts of chemistry into a form of art – and this is where Mackmyra wants AI to work its magic.
“We always strive to challenge the traditions in the very traditional whisky trade, and that’s something we can really do now with the help of AI. We see AI as a part of our digital development, and it is really exciting to let AI be a complement to the craft of producing a high-quality whisky. For me as a Master Blender, it is a great achievement to be able to say that I’m now also a mentor for the first ever created AI whisky in the world“, says D’Orazio.
This is the first time that AI has been used to augment and automate the most time-consuming process of whisky creation. According to D’Orazio: “It’s much more complex than models used to create beer, due to the sheer number of combinations available, and the fact that whisky recipe generation is more art than engineering.”
Generated by AI, curated by people
Humans have always selected the different blends of ingredients and casks to create near-infinite flavour combinations.
Currently, the distillery’s machine learning models, powered by Microsoft’s Azure cloud platform and Azure cognitive services, are fed with Mackmyra’s existing recipes (including those for award-winning blends), sales data, and customer preferences. With this dataset the AI can generate more than 70 million recipes that it predicts will be popular, and of the highest quality based on what kind of cask types there are in the warehouse.
This is not only faster than a person carrying out the process manually, but thanks to the algorithm’s ability to sift through and calculate a vast amount of data, new and innovative combinations that would otherwise never have been considered, can be found. It’s important to stress, however, that this AI solution is not designed to replace a Master Blender.
“The work of a Master Blender is not at risk,” D’Orazio states. “While the whisky recipe is created by AI, we still benefit from a person’s expertise and knowledge, especially the human sensory part, that can never be replaced by any program. We believe that the whisky is AI-generated, but human-curated. Ultimately, the decision is made by a person.”
Beyond the glass
Mackmyra’s AI-generated whisky will be available from Autumn 2019. According to the distillery, this is the first time that a complex consumer product recipe has been created with machine learning – but whisky is just the beginning.
“This AI-generation can have an impact in different industries globally,” says Jarno Kartela, Machine Learning Partner at Fourkind, the company behind the AI algorithm. “I envision AI systems generating recipes for sweets, perfumes, beverages, and maybe even sneaker designs. Many of these have already been attempted, but large-scale adoption is still lagging behind.”
“We are showing the way forward, and these new AI solutions can be used to generate products that retain the spirit, look and feel of the brands behind them, while at the same time being new and unique”, continues Kartela.
A future where the power and speed of AI is paired with the ingenuity and expertise of a person to break new boundaries? We’ll certainly drink to that.
Tech promotes connections across groups in emerging markets
Digital technology users say they more regularly interact with people from diverse backgrounds
Smartphone users – especially those who use social media – say they are more regularly exposed to people who have different backgrounds. They are also more connected with friends they don’t see in person, a Pew Research Center survey of adults in 11 emerging economies finds.
South Africa, included in the study, has among the most consistent levels of connection across age groups and education levels and in terms of cross-cultural connections. This suggests both that smartphones have had a greater democratisation impact in South Africa, but also that the country is more geared to diversity than most others. Of 11 countries surveyed, it has the second-lowest spread between those using smartphones and those not using them in terms of exposure to other religious groups.
Across every country surveyed, those who use smartphones are more likely than those who use less sophisticated phones or no phones at all to regularly interact with people from different religious groups. In most countries, people with smartphones also tend to be more likely to interact regularly with people from different political parties, income levels and racial or ethnic backgrounds.
The Center’s new report is the third in a series exploring digital connectivity among populations in emerging economies based on nationally representative surveys of adults in Colombia, India, Jordan, Kenya, Lebanon, Mexico, the Philippines, Tunisia, South Africa, Venezuela and Vietnam. Earlier reports examined attitudes toward misinformation and mobile technology’s social impact.
The survey finds that smartphone and social media use are intertwined: A median of 91% of smartphone users in these countries also use social media or messaging apps, while a median of 81% of social media users say they own or share a smartphone. And, as with smartphone users, social media and messaging app users stand apart from non-users in how often they interact with people who are different from them. For example, 52% of Mexican social media users say they regularly interact with people of a different income level, compared with 28% of non-users.
These results do not show with certainty that smartphones or social media are the cause of people feeling like they have more diverse networks. For example, those who have resources to buy and maintain a smartphone are likely to differ in many key ways from those who don’t, and it could be that some combination of those differences drives this phenomenon. Still, statistical modelling indicates that smartphone and social media use are independent predictors of greater social network diversity when other factors such as age, education and sex are held constant.
Other key findings in the report include:
- Mobile phones and social media are broadening people’s social networks. More than half in most countries say they see in person only about half or fewer of the people they call or text. Mobile phones are also allowing many to stay in touch with people who live far away: A median of 93% of mobile phone users across the 11 countries surveyed say their phones have mostly helped them keep in touch with those who are far-flung. When it comes to social media, large shares report relationships with “friends” online who are distinct from those they see in person. A median of 46% of Facebook users across the 11 countries report seeing few or none of their Facebook friends in person regularly, compared with a median of 31% of Facebook users who often see most or all of their Facebook friends in person.
- Social activities and information seeking on subjects like health and education top the list of mobile activities. The survey asked mobile phone users about 10 different activities they might do on their mobile phones – activities that are social, information-seeking or commercial in nature. Among the most commonly reported activities are casual, social activities. For example, a median of 82% of mobile phone users in the 11 countries surveyed say they used their phone over the past year to send text messages and a median of 69% of users say they took pictures or videos. Many mobile phone users are also using their phones to find new information. For example, a median of 61% of mobile phone users say they used their phones over the past year to look up information about health and medicine for themselves or their families. This is more than the proportion that reports using their phones to get news and information about politics (median of 47%) or to look up information about government services (37%). Additionally, around half or more of mobile phone users in nearly all countries report having used their phones over the past 12 months to learn something important for work or school.
- Digital divides emerge in the new mobile-social environment. People with smartphones and social media – as well as younger people, those with higher levels of education, and men – are in some ways reaping more benefits than others, potentially contributing to digital divides.
- People with smartphones are much more likely to engage in activities on their phones than people with less sophisticated devices – even if the activity itself is quite simple. For example, people with smartphones are more likely than those with feature or basic phones to send text messages in each of the 11 countries surveyed, even though the activity is technically feasible from all mobile phones. Those who have smartphones are also much more likely to look up information for their households, including about health and government services.
- There are also major differences in mobile usage by age and education level in how their devices are – or are not – broadening their horizons. Younger people are more likely to use their phones for nearly all activities asked about, whether those activities are social, information-seeking or commercial. Phone users with higher levels of education are also more likely to do most activities on their phones and to interact with those who are different from them regularly than those with lower levels of education.
- Gender, too, plays a role in what people do with their devices and how they are exposed to different people and information. Men are more likely than women to say they encounter people who are different from them, whether in terms of race, politics, religion or income. And men tend to be more likely to look up information about government services and to obtain political news and information.
These findings are drawn from a Pew Research Center survey conducted among 28,122 adults in 11 countries from Sept. 7 to Dec. 7, 2018. In addition to the survey, the Center conducted focus groups with participants in Kenya, Mexico, the Philippines and Tunisia in March 2018, and their comments are included throughout the report.
Nokia to be first with Android 10
Nokia is likely to be the first smartphone brand to roll out Android 10, after its manufacturer, HMD Global, announced that the Android 10 software upgrade would start in the fourth quarter of 2019.
Previously named Android Q, it was given the number after Google announced it was ditching sweet and dessert names due to confusion in different languages. Android 10 is due for release at the end of the year.
Juho Sarvikas, chief product officer of HMD Global said: “With a proven track record in delivering software updates fast, Nokia smartphones were the first whole portfolio to benefit from a 2-letter upgrade from Android Nougat to Android Oreo and then Android Pie. We were the fastest manufacturer to upgrade from Android Oreo to Android Pie across the range.
“With today’s roll out plan we look set to do it even faster for Android Pie to Android 10 upgrades. We are the only manufacturer 100% committed to having the latest Android across the entire portfolio.”
HMD Global has given a guarantee that Nokia smartphone owners benefit from two years of OS upgrades and 3 years of security updates.