2023 will be the year of “hope and focus” for AI, says transformation leader at PepsiCo

2023 will be the year of “hope and focus” for AI, says transformation leader at PepsiCo

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In terms of artificial intelligence (AI), the past year has been ambitious but ultimately unsuccessful, says Athina Kanioura, who was named PepsiCo’s first chief strategy and transformation officer in September 2020. But she is optimistic about 2023.

“Think about how we started with the metaverse and the use of AI, all of a sudden it crumbled to pieces,” she told VentureBeat. “In AI we tend to see what doesn’t work the first time, then we lose hope – but I think 2023 should be a year of hope and focus for AI.”

That includes at PepsiCo, said Kanioura, who joined the third-largest consumer packaged goods (CPG) company — with well-known global brands including Pepsi, Lay’s, Cheetos, Quaker and Gatorade — after a dozen years at professional services firm Accenture. There, she most recently served as the company’s chief analytics officer and global head of applied intelligence, helping customers leverage AI at scale.

PepsiCo, she explained, is “extremely passionate” about AI, and when she joined, she brought statistical information, digital data and AI under one umbrella to grow the company “exponentially” and “drive another PepsiCo forward.”

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It appears to be coming from the top: Just a month ago, in comments following the company’s third-quarter 2022 financial results, PepsiCo CEO Ramon Laguarta and CFO Hugh Johnston said the company is focused on “automating and digitizing our supply chain to support our innovation pipeline with greater agility and speed to market.”

Athina Kanioura, Head of Strategy and Transformation, PepsiCo

Three key segments

AI at PepsiCo—from cognitive science and machine learning (ML) capabilities to data lakes and clouds—is organized within what Kanioura calls a “human framework” and divided into three key segments.

One is the use of AI to enhance the human experience and facilitate what happens on the ground. For example, PepsiCo uses AI monitoring for predictive maintenance, quality and safety for employees in factories, warehouses and distribution centers.

“There are control towers, sensors in their devices, their machinery, to prevent safety risks for our employees, for quality control and to prevent damage to the parts,” she explained. “Through these AI systems, we’re protecting the well-being of our employees, and secondly, we’re giving them insight into how they can do their jobs more efficiently — so that’s hugely important to us from a supply chain and operations perspective.”

PepsiCo is also using artificial intelligence to accelerate business growth by identifying “whitespace” when thinking about new product categories – including by analyzing consumer sentiment.

“With this kind of data, in less than a year we created Off The Eaten Path seaweed snacks, which actually do well,” she said.

AI insights also showed that consumers were interested in immunity, which led to Propel, with immunity-boosting ingredients, six months later.

“This is how you can use AI to drive the next generation of products and growth,” she added.

In addition, AI is used to increase sustainability.

“AI is an integral part of our company’s future mission, which is a positive outcome, a better planet, for our employees, for our children, for our communities,” she said.

For example, as one of the largest potato producers in the world (for brands such as Frito-Lay), PepsiCo uses artificial intelligence to provide farmers in North America, Latin America and Europe with over a million key data points about the potatoes they plant and offer insights about crops – for example, how deep seeds should be planted based on weather conditions, how much to irrigate, how to protect the crop and how to optimize yields.

“It has led to much more sustainable practices,” she said.

PepsiCo Farming Technology

Digital hubs drive PepsiCo’s success

A year ago, PepsiCo established the company’s first two digital hubs in Barcelona, ​​Spain and Dallas, Texas, and was expected to create more than 500 data and digital jobs over the next couple of years, to “largely influence the way the organization reinvents planning, making, moving, selling and delivering products.”

At the time, PepsiCo said the hubs would help the company move toward a future vision for customers by allowing professionals to have real-time access to sales and inventory data, consistent product availability at the right location, and employees would also be able to use predictive decision-making tools.

But wherever AI is used throughout PepsiCo, Kanioura said all employees operate under the same accountable AI framework.

“We have one responsible AI framework that everyone follows, from how we design the systems to how we input data, process the models, revise the models as they run and finally to the post-processing,” she said. “The principles apply to everyone in my team and we have a committee that ensures this process is run in a consistent way across the organization.”

The future of AI at PepsiCo and beyond

Kanioura and other AI leaders at PepsiCo are active in providing industry perspective and recommendations to regulatory bodies, including the Congressional AI Caucus, NIST, she added.

“Which ethical AI framework should be used, what are the processes and assumptions you need for a viable framework for an organization, what is the role of the industry versus the technology provider versus the government,” she said. “I think if you have different parties … sitting together, this will be an advantage in putting together a set of regulations.”

For PepsiCo, Kanioura emphasized that the mission of AI is to drive next-generation growth for the company, but within the context of human experience.

“I think 2023 will be a year when I expect to see further consolidation, with much more concentrated investment in key areas of AI where it will be beneficial to the masses and across industries, rather than futuristic capabilities,” she said. “I think the industry has realized that we need to do things where everyone can benefit – you hear that in the discussion from a lot of the tech companies, they say we need to focus on the core of AI.”

Additionally, she said the future of AI at PepsiCo will be about scalability and industrialization.

“For many years, we did a lot of experiments, a lot of proofs of concepts, because some areas of AI were not mature enough,” she said. “Now, if we think about AI for integrated business planning, we do it at scale. R&D will use it at scale.”

It is important, she concluded, to take stock of what has been a challenging year overall and reconsider some AI strategies.

“In 2023, there is great hope for what AI can do for society,” she said. “We shouldn’t forget how during COVID-19 AI was used for precision medicine, and there’s huge hope for AI in precision agriculture, we’re using it – it’s an amazing unlocking of what AI can do.”

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