Using AI to fight the war on waste.
Yien Li Yap (TC 2006) spends a lot of time looking in bins. Her goal is to help them lose weight – kind of like a garbage bin personal trainer, she says. In an exciting new development, Yien Li is getting help from a group of assistants … but they’re not people, they’re robots.
Yien Li is the Client Success Manager in the APAC headquarters of Winnow, a company using artificial intelligence in commercial kitchens to reduce food waste. ‘It’s not a place I imagined myself to be, but then, for a long time I knew that the job for me didn’t exist yet,’ says Yien Li, referring to her passion for sustainability, qualification as a chef, degree in commerce and experience working with start-ups. ‘I just tried everything around those interests and eventually I found this niche, which, weirdly, fits really well. I feel very lucky,’ she says.
Yien Li works in an operations team, meaning she gets to spend a lot of time working with chefs in the kitchen. Her team measures the amount of waste coming out of kitchens, including those of Hilton and InterContinental hotels and IKEA, and then offers advice on how to reduce it. ‘We work with a smart scale, which has a camera that records everything that goes into the bin,’ she explains. ‘Through image recognition, we’re trying to get the machine to a point where it knows exactly what’s going into the bin without being told.’
By cutting waste in commercial kitchens, Yien Li’s work has the capacity to bring about real environmental change. ‘What we do has a domino effect down the food supply chain. If we reduce waste, it means less food needs to be produced and less food needs to be shipped,’ she says. ‘I go to work every day and feel fulfilled. I look at the reports that come in from restaurants or entire hotel chains and see the tonnage of food that we’ve saved from going in the bin each year. That’s a concrete number that shows what I’m doing for the fight.’
Yien Li says her interest in sustainability comes from her parents. ‘I grew up next to the botanic gardens in Singapore and my mum knew all the names of the plants and flowers, then my dad is an amateur wildlife photographer, and we always had stacks of National Geographic magazines at home,’ she says. Her parents, both doctors who went on regular overseas missions, were also Yien Li’s inspiration to give back to society and to travel, which would eventually land her in Melbourne.
Moving to Australia and Trinity’s Residential College from Singapore was an adjustment for Yien Li. ‘I experienced culture shock in that suddenly I was told I could express an opinion, speak up in class, and disagree with people. To me that was mind blowing,’ she says. Yien Li fully participated in college life though, saying that she gave everything a go at least once. ‘I tried out for the swimming team, even though I didn’t really swim. I tried out for theatre sports, even though I didn’t know what it was. I tried out for netball, although I knew I sucked,’ she laughs. Added to that was more successful stints heading up the international student committee, editing the Bulpadock journal, and singing with the Candystripes a cappella group.
Despite fond memories of living in Australia, Yien Li’s feet are firmly planted back on home soil. ‘Asia is growing so fast, so I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else,’ she says. ‘But I’m always continuously learning and one thing I’ve learned from moving around is that life is exciting and anything is possible. I just have to keep my head up so I can see the opportunities as they come.’