The Digital Foodscape and the Farm

The Lempert Report
March 30, 2017

Industry has not taken the time to respect that agriculture is one of the most uncontained environments to manage.

Joseph Byrum’s recent column in Ag Funder News explores artificial intelligence in agriculture.  He says that hypothetically, it is possible for machines to learn to solve any problem on earth relating to the physical interaction of all things within a defined or contained environment…by using artificial intelligence and machine learning. 

He explains how the rise of digital agriculture and its related technologies has opened a wealth of new data opportunities. Remote sensors, satellites, and UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles – or as we like to call them :drones”) can gather information 24 hours per day over an entire field. These can monitor plant health, soil condition, temperature, humidity, etc. The amount of data these sensors can generate is overwhelming, and the significance of the numbers is hidden in the avalanche of that data. 

The idea is to allow farmers to gain a better understanding of the situation on the ground through advanced technology (such as remote sensing) that can tell them more about their situation than they can see with the naked eye. And not just more accurately but also more quickly than seeing it walking or driving through the fields. 

In 2011, IBM, through its R&D Headquarters in Haifa, Israel, launched an agricultural cloud-computing project. Interviews with some members of the IBM project team at the time revealed that the team believed it was entirely possible to “algorithm” agriculture. Ultimately, IBM realized the task of producing cognitive machine learning solutions for agriculture was much more difficult than even they could have thought. 

Agriculture is hard. Conditions are always changing. There’s unpredictable weather, changes in soil quality, and the ever-present possibility of pests and disease. Agriculture takes place in nature, among ecosystems of interacting organisms and activity, and crop production takes place within that ecosystem environment. 

With billions of dollars being directed to agricultural technology startups they are  pushed to complete development as quickly as possible and then encouraged to flood the market as quickly as possible with their products. That’s the Silicon Valley approach – but as Byrum points out: This usually results in a failure of a product, the problem is not that the technology does not work, the problem is that industry has not taken the time to respect that agriculture is one of the most uncontained environments to manage.