This week’s PMA town hall looked at the developments in AI and how the technology can be applied to solve problems in agriculture. Vonnie Estes, PMA’s Vice-President of Technology, talked with Dr. Elliott Grant, who is the general manager of Project Mineral at X, Alphabet’s “Moonshot Factory.” Grant and Estes discussed Project Mineral and the potential AI has in agriculture.
The goal: Individual plant management
Grant’s work with AI has been focused on finding solutions for the agriculture industry. “The questions we asked ourselves was: ‘What if machines could perceive the plant world as expertly as humans do?' Our daily lives in agriculture rely very heavily on human perception and that’s is something that machines haven’t historically been able to do, so that is what we set out to tackle. This won’t put anyone out of a job, either – it a tool designed to make people, experts, more effective. The machines will take over the tedious, difficult, or boring tasks, which should free up the time of the experts to be more effective in their roles.”
The team is currently working on ‘training’ the machines and teaching them everything about crops. “Our machines collect billions of images which become the raw material for teaching the machine. With these images, we can construct a machine’s understanding of plant growth in the real world. Once the machine can do this, then they can interpret the images and extract information that will guide a grower. Our vision of the future is to allow growers to be able to manage each plant individually and give each plant what it needs individually. This will be fundamental for the future of sustainable agriculture because it will allow growers to cut down on input and waste.”
Specific applications in agriculture
The technology and machinery will have applications throughout the supply chain and in every sector of the agriculture industry. Grant explains: “Crop breeders will have the ability to measure the plant phenotype very accurately and see how a particular plant responds to a particular agricultural practice and be able truly understand what is happening on a genetic level. This should catalyze the breeding process and make it much quicker, and hopefully bring even more diversity into the food supply chain.”
The AI technology is able to evaluate the crops at a much higher rate than would be possible for humans, says Grant. “A spinach field, for example has very high crop density, and it’s virtually impossible for a human agronomist to go in and count the plant density. But with a machine, we’re able to count every single leaf of the spinach plant and understand everything about it. Using this information, growers are able to understand every aspect of their plant, which will help them measure their yields early on in the season with high accuracy – and influence the yields by making adjustments to their growing strategies based on the data,” Grant says.
Additionally, the technology also has the potential to positively impact food safety. “We could accurately detect, for example, fecal matter on a plant. After detections, the grower can either have someone manually remove the contaminated plant, but we are also working on extending the technological application by having a mechanical actuation take care of the problem – we’re not there yet, but hopefully in a few years we will have that technology.”
Working in partnerships with the industry
To collect all the data they need to teach the machines, Grant and his team have partnered with growers in the industry. “We select our partners based on their commitment to a sustainable future. We are definitely open to more partnerships, especially if you have a unique crop, environment, or growing technique. If you are interested in partnering with us, email us at email@example.com,” says Grant.
Not only are Grant and his team looking for more partnerships, but they are also looking for other types of industry input. “We are not the growers, breeders or shippers, and we don’t know what specific challenges you are faced with every day. So, we work with the industry directly and let them tell us what problems we should focus on trying to solve with this technology,” he concludes.
Next week’s town hall will provide an update on culture trends and opportunities for the produce and floral industries taken from the virtual South by Southwest Conference.