Whole Foods sunsets rewards ahead of Amazon Prime integration

In-store Echoes were clearly just the beginning of Whole Foods’ Amazon integration. Now that the massive online retailer owns your go-to chain for flax, kale and kombucha, it’s time to really roll it into Prime.

This week, Whole Foods alerted shoppers via an email spotted by Market Watch that it’s going to sunset both its reward program and digital coupons at the beginning of May. The company teased what’s to come by promising, “We’re Growing Something Good,” along with an Amazon logo. That “good,” however, will not including rolling over benefits into the new program. 

Details of the future integration are still sparse at the moment, and we’ve reached out to Amazon for more information. For now, however, the site’s FAQ suggests we all, “Stay tuned for additional announcements for Amazon Prime members.”

Prime has, of course, become the great connective tissue in Amazoniverse in recent years. What started as an offer of free shipping has since grown to include all of the company’s multimedia offerings, along with other Bezos-owned businesses, including The Washington Post. Prime will get you six free months of Donald Trump’s least favorite newspaper. Well, one of them, at least.

Tying Whole Foods’ rewards and coupons into Prime should prove a perfect bit of synergy for the two parties. Sign up for free shipping and get a deal on bulk chia seeds. What’s not to like? 

The Eminem AR show

With the debut of his Eminem Augmented app at Coachella last night, hip hop’s not-so-merry prankster took the (somewhat revolutionary) step of embracing the machine that so many musicians have raged against — by building an experience that actually enhances the way that modern fans see live music.

Rather than fighting the mobile phone phenomena, which has fans watching sets through the reflected glow of a cell phone’s live recording, the multiplatinum megastar decided to lose himself in the moment… and own it.

We figured, if the phones are going to be there and people are going to be putting them up in the air and looking at them anyway why don’t we provide a way to maybe change the way they’re perceiving the show,” says Def Jam chief executive (and former manager for Marshall Mathers), Paul Rosenberg.

Developed by the multimedia production shop Drive Studios, Eminem’s live set at Coachella introduced fans to visuals that will grace tour dates around the U.S. and Europe as rap’s Duke of Detroit takes his show on the road. 

The concert experience is a geo-tagged time-stamped exclusive experience that is only visible within a few hundred yards of a live show, according to Drive Studios’ creative director, Rich Lee. 

“Artists and bands have been freaking out about fans having this passive experience with their phones,” said one person with knowledge of the artists’ thinking. “We wanted to experiment with… if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em. Why not embrace the technology and get people deeper into the experience and more engaged in the experience if they’re going to do it anyway.”

The app, which launched on Thursday contained perks for festival-goers who always wanted to see rap’s clown prince drop trou and dump a load of meatballs and spaghetti on them — or view a portal to Eminem’s wild world of music.

“There were ancillary pieces of content that we wanted to put into the app,” says the insider. “Having fun… Joking and having this experience with his fans, that layered very nicely with the Mom’s spaghetti pop-up.”

The Mom’s spaghetti interface took a simple image recognition feature of the universal food container used at the food stalls across the festival venue and layered Em’s spaghetti tossing graphics on top of it.

For Lee, who first worked with Eminem on the “Not Afraid” video in 2010, the augmented reality app is a first step for what could become a broader portal to connect with fans.

“We started talking about getting VR and AR for a while,” Lee says. “It’s only recently come about that this technology has come around to the point where we feel we could pull this stuff off.”

The creative team behind Eminem’s events won’t wade into the virtual reality vs. augmented reality debate. Rather, they say, the application that’s right for the job is the one that will win out. When virtual reality can become a more communal experience, then it will have more appeal for the Marshall Mathers show.

Impossible Foods goes to White Castle

Impossible Foods is taking another bite out of the meat supply chain, with the announcement that its meatless burger substitute is coming to America’s first fast-food burger chain — White Castle.

That’s right, now stoned vegan hippies can join stoned slackers in their quest for cheap, delicious burger-y goodness.

The “Impossible Slider,” which is made from Impossible Foods’ vegetable-based ground beef substitute, will now be available for $1.99, or as part of a combo meal.

It’s hard to understate the importance of this as Impossible Foods now makes the jump from higher-end, fast-casual restaurants to a truly mass consumer, fast-food chain.

If the company’s mission to be a viable competitor to ground beef — and ultimately replace it — Impossible Foods was going to have to make the jump from Umami Burger to “Impossible Slider” at some point.

As we wrote recently, the company has been beefing up its balance sheet to make just such a move — raising nearly $300 million in funding to take its burgers to Asia, and across America.

As part of the deal, the Impossible Slider will be available at 140 locations in the New York-New Jersey corridor and around Chicago and its suburbs.

“White Castle’s model has been often imitated but never duplicated — an impressive feat in the hyper-competitive fast-food sector,” said Impossible Foods’ founder and chief executive Patrick Brown in a statement. “We look forward to working closely with White Castle, and together learning how to popularize plant-based meat with mainstream burger lovers.”

How artificial intelligence will take over the supermarket produce aisles

Artificial intelligence is about more than asking Alexa or Siri to turn on the lights at home and add a reminder to the calendar about getting some milk at the store later in the afternoon.

The true power of AI and machine learning is how it can democratize expertise, lowering the barriers to entry for tasks that once could only be performed by a small group of specialists. The result, one day, will be that your self-driving car drops you off at the supermarket, where you will find higher-quality foods available at prices lower than they’ve ever been.

It will happen through the use of machine learning algorithms that absorb a large volume of data, recognize patterns and apply statistical probabilities to choose the course of action most likely to result in a successful outcome.

For example, Google’s famous self-driving car used machine learning to catalog a number of interesting behaviors on the road. Whenever the car’s sensors recognized a garbage truck ahead, vehicles following behind tended to pull suddenly into the next lane to get around it — usually without signaling. So the Google car stored this pattern of behavior and adapted its position and speed to minimize the possibility that these “unexpected” lane changes would cause a collision.

For humans, this is a common defensive driving skill, but replicating this level of awareness in a machine would have been unthinkable just a few years ago. Now, powerful algorithms can conquer the chaos of streets filled with drivers of all skill levels, including those paying more attention to their phones than the road ahead.

Artificial intelligence and agriculture

As amazing as that may be, the application of machine learning to the living fields of agriculture is an order of magnitude more complex. A road network is fixed, with a map that rarely changes and provides a solid foundation for the algorithm to make its decisions.

No matter how calm and peaceful a wind-swept field of wheat might appear to the casual observer, agricultural fields are truly chaotic places. There’s unpredictable weather, changes in soil quality and the ever-present possibility that pests and disease may pay a visit. Conditions in one part of a field may be totally different from another part. As a result, growers never really know until the last day whether they are going to have a successful harvest or not.

The potential for growth in agricultural AI systems is significant.

Take a seed and plant it in a field in Iowa. Then take the exact same seed and plant it in Brazil. The results will almost certainly not be the same, or, if they are, repeat the experiment again and the odds are that the yield of each will be different. That’s because thousands of interrelated variables are at play, from the amount of nutrients in the soil, to whether it’s sunny or cloudy, to rain levels, temperature, the presence of insects and so on.

That’s where machine learning can reap clarity from the chaos. Remote sensors placed in fields perceive the environment as statistical data. Algorithms process this data, adapting and learning to predict a range of outcomes.

Farmers can use these AI algorithms to make better field decisions that increase the chances of a successful harvest. Breeders also can use AI algorithms to make the plants themselves better. The combination of these uses will ultimately drive lower prices at the supermarket.

The democratization of farming expertise

This is a massive a shift in the way things have always been done in agriculture. Farmers have a proud tradition going back centuries of relying on instinct in growing crops. They have an intuition of what’s best based on long experience. It’s not that farmers didn’t want to use computers, it’s that they haven’t been particularly effective. Early machines, with their binary logic, were not well-suited to highly complex and variable field environments.

So a farm’s productivity often depended on having the most experienced growers on hand. But what if we could change that, and make the best decisions and growing techniques available even to novice farmers? This is particularly important for developing nations that might not have access to highly experienced growers.

The rise of precision agriculture has opened the possibility of spreading the benefit of machine expertise far and wide. Remote sensors, satellites and UAVs can gather information 24 hours a day over an entire field. These can monitor plant health, soil condition, temperature, humidity and so on. The amount of data these sensors can generate is overwhelming, but the algorithms of precision agriculture can process and interpret the data in a useful way.

The next big leap will come from deploying true artificial intelligence algorithms that learn from the data and interpret never-before-seen situations, allowing each harvest to become more and more certain. This will reduce wasted effort and lower the cost of growing, with much of the savings passed on to consumers.

AI builds better plants

Machine learning algorithms can also be applied to the centuries-old process of breeding plant varieties better able to resist drought or insect pressures. Breeders have long used conventional methods of selecting the “best” parent plants to create varieties with a more pleasing appearance, longer shelf life and a superior taste. Because of AI’s application in breeding, stronger plants are more likely to make their way to harvest, and yields will continue to increase.

As with farming techniques, machine learning helps with all aspects of the decision-making process of selecting plants and testing new varieties. Algorithms speed the process so that improvements in plant varieties make their way to the fields and the supermarkets faster than ever. This, again, helps lower costs while improving quality.

The potential for growth in agricultural AI systems is significant, and as the algorithms grow smarter, the benefits will continue to be seen every time you check out at the supermarket.

Postmates launching pickup feature

Postmates, the startup that offers on-demand delivery for anything in your city, now lets people order ahead for pickup. This comes about one year after Square’s Caviar expanded into pickups, following the acquisition of OrderAhead’s pickup business.

Postmates started testing Pickup in San Francisco earlier this week, and plans to officially launch it in the next couple of weeks, a Postmates spokesperson told TechCrunch. Currently, there are over 200 merchants participating in Pickup, including my personal favorite, Papalote.

“The idea around pickup is around expanding the retail experience to our merchants,” the spokesperson said. “It’s giving those merchants another tool to expand the reach.”

After the official launch in San Francisco, Postmates plans to expand Pickup to New York and Los Angeles within the next couple of months.

This update comes after Postmates in November shipped a revamped version of its app, which added a grocery service and scheduled deliveries to the platform.

Postmates’ pickup functionality comes on the heels of news it may be teaming up with DoorDash in an effort to better compete against Uber, GrubHub and Amazon, Recode reported earlier today. Postmates declined to comment on the rumor to TechCrunch.

To date, Postmates is doing three million deliveries a month with a gross merchandise volume of $1.2 billion.

Alphabet’s X lab explores using AI to improve food production

Add Alphabet to the growing number of companies hoping that AI will solve food production problems. The Google parent brand's X lab has revealed that it's exploring ways machine learning could improve farming. While X hasn't focused on any specific…

Marijuana soda startup California Dreamin’ wants to replace booze

“Enjoy a light, social high” says the funky bottle of California Dreamin’ cannabis -infused sparkling pomegranate juice. Launching today at Y Combinator Demo Day, California Dreamin’ is serving up an alcohol alternative that still gets you lit, but without the same hangover or health issues.

Each bottle contains 10 milligrams of THC — an industry standard dose of the psychoactive chemical in marijuana. The company only uses sativa, the more energizing, euphoric type of pot, compared to the more body relaxing Indica variety. That’s compared to some competing marijuana beverages with as much as 100mg — enough that a single sip will get you high and bottle will lay out all but the hardiest stoners. “We want it to be a light, head high feel” says Seven Cities Beverage Company aka California Dreamin’ co-founder Amy Ludlum. “We don’t want to give anyone couch lock. We want it to be social.”

Meanwhile, the taste marries fruity sweetness with a hint of earthy plant life complexity that will titillate long-time cannabis fans. Bottles come in other flavors like tangerine, grapefruit, and cranberry apple, and will retail for about $8 to $10 each. Cases are rolling out to recreational dispensaries in San Francisco like The Barbary Coast over the next week.

California Dreamin’ has succeeded in creating a beverage with the light-hearted brand, logical dosage, and agreeable taste to be something you can drink casually and socially, not just when you want to get ridiculously high. That makes it a better alternative or complement to drinking alcohol. It’s certainly not for everyone. Paranoia, anxiety, and post-high grogginess are all common side-effects of sativa, and you shouldn’t drive while blazed. But there are plenty of people who want an option to unwind that doesn’t involve a literal poison, or smoking a burning plant that can hurt your lungs.

The only problem is that California and other states with legal recreational marijuana ban the sale of anything cannabis related anywhere that serves alcohol. That means you aren’t likely to see California Dreamin’ in a bar any time soon, but you could throw a pretty fun backyard barbecue. But with 1 million medical marijuana users out of 28 million California adults, and with over half of the voting population supporting cannabis legalization, there’s plenty of room to build a brand in this space.

Inebriation is America’s true national pastime. You could see it as people just seeking an escape from daily troubles, but it’s also a way to shift our thinking to get a new perspective on the world. Considering how much we pay for entertainment that’s merely stimulus we filter through our perception, $10 to pleasantly alter that perception is not a half-baked idea.

GrubHub and Yelp now offer delivery from over 80,000 restaurants

To combat rival services DoorDash and UberEats, Grubhub is expanding its partnership with Yelp to deliver meals from over 80,000 US restaurants on the food listing company's site and app. This finalizes GrubHub's $288 million acquisition of Yelp's Ea…