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If you could distil decades of tuna mercantile expertise and know-how into a smartphone app, would you do it? Kazuhiro Shimura did.

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If you could distil decades of tuna mercantile expertise and know-how into a smartphone app, would you do it? Kazuhiro Shimura did.

The idea for the Tuna Scope came about, says creative director Kazuhiro Shimura of Dentsu’s Creative Planning Division Four, because of the substandard sashimi he’d typically pick out and buy at a local grocery store. 

“I had been wondering whether something could be done to improve this hit-or-miss experience, which happens despite having to pay the same price and the tuna looking the same as better quality fish,” he says.

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To earn one of four grades, tuna grading is based on five criteria – appearance, size and shape, colour, texture and fat content.

Tuna brokers have developed a keen sense of intuition after decades of examining tuna tails. They’re usually able to grade the quality just by eyeballing them. Naturally, it’s a trade that’s hard to adopt. Only a limited number of tuna can be evaluated per day at a tuna auction, which makes training successors more difficult. This is where the Tuna Scope comes in.

The premise is simple: snap a cross-section of a tuna’s tail and the Android-enabled application will assess its quality. Underpinning that final grade, however, are thousands of tail cross-sections and past gradings from tuna artisans that have been fed to an AI, which essentially fishes through decades of sensory experiences with tuna in a matter of weeks.

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If you’re looking to try AI-selected tuna first hand, head to Kuro Maguro – literally bluefin tuna – in the CBD.

The Tuna Scope eliminates subjectivity in grading and the need for years of apprenticeship. It never gets tired too. The latter is key, especially when you consider that billions of yen (and hundreds of hulking tuna) are auctioned off daily at Toyosu Market, which replaced the world-famous Tsukiji Market last year.

Naturally, tuna merchants weren’t too keen on passing on their skills to a mobile phone app, no matter how much Dentsu spun it. The next step for Shimura and his team was Sojitz Corporation, a major tuna trading company that wanted to improve its selection process. Together, the team fed more than a decade’s worth of tuna cross-sections to the programme during a month in a fish factory located in Yaizu.

Soon afterwards, pilot testing began and resulted in Kura Sushi, one of Japan’s biggest conveyor belt sushi chains, signing on as a client recently.

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With tuna merchants and wholesalers ageing along with the rest of Japan, someone or something has to keep the supply of high-grade tuna flowing into Japan’s celebrated restaurants.

In Singapore, CBD darlings Kuro Maguro and Magura Donya now also sell Tuna Scope-picked sashimi and sushi to their diners.

What’s next for the team? Forestry, medicine and agriculture come to mind, as well as other high-grade foods like Kobe beef, which requires just as much expertise to grade.

Of course, this questions whether the Tuna Scope is driving out the austere, if respected, craft of being an expert food merchant. Shimura doesn’t think so. “It is difficult to learn and inherit the skills of the artisans. This technology simply makes it easier,” he says. 

“In the future, we can use artificial intelligence for connoisseurs of other industries. This could lead to the creation of innovative products and services that never existed before.”

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