At 180 years old, John Deere has become a household name that conjures images of farmland, tractors and rural America. But what's less known about the iconic company is that it's become a leading tech innovator in the precision agriculture space, and in many ways, serves as an example of how every business is digital. A year ago, John Deere bought a Silicon Valley-based artificial intelligence (AI) startup called Blue River, and it's now working to incorporate machine learning, deep learning, and robotics into the brains of its farm equipment. The goal is to use automated driving technology, computer vision, telematics, and cloud-based mobile applications to help farmers double or triple their yields -- a feat that will be key to keeping up with global food demands as the Earth's population grows over the next thirty years. "By 2050, there's going to be nine billion people on the planet," said Terry Pickett, manager of advanced engineering for John Deere's Intelligent Solutions Group.
Farmers have always collected and evaluated a large amount of data each growing season. It started in ledger books. Then it was moved to spreadsheets, which were eventually saved on USB drives. Now, we have real-time reports enabled by field monitoring equipment, enriched by artificial intelligence (AI), and available to farmers on tablets and smartphones. New digital tools offer farmers customized insights with a few taps on a screen.
With the growth of the world's population showing no sign of slowing down, George Kantor of Carnegie Mellon University hopes robots can produce the food we need. Food and robotics are being intertwined in such a way now that our very future could depend on this partnership as our world heads towards a possible global population of just under 10bn by the year 2050, according to the UN. This, of course, means more food is needed and, based on our production and available arable land, this could prove to be an insurmountable problem with catastrophic consequences. One person hoping to use robotics to solve that problem is George Kantor, a senior systems scientist at Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) where he leads projects that bring research ideas from multiple disciplines to develop new robotic systems that solve interesting, practical problems. After receiving his PhD in electrical engineering from the University of Maryland, College Park, he moved to CMU as a postdoctoral student.
An engineer working for Japanese carmaker Nissan has built a robot to help farmers reduce the use of herbicides and pesticides on their rice crops. The compact robot, called Aigamo, is designed to mimic the natural use of ducks that paddle around in flooded paddy fields. Ducks have been used as natural weed repellents for centuries to tear them up and feed on insects, with their manure even acting as an additional fertiliser. As it glides through the water, two mechanisms on the bottom muddy the water to prevent weeds from getting enough sunlight to grow. The technique was used in the late 20th century with live ducks, called'aigamo,' which would paddle the water with the same results and eat any insects they found along the way.
During a wide-ranging discussion at Amazon's re:MARS conference in Las Vegas, Naveen Rao, corporate vice president and general manager of AI at Intel, spoke about machine learning's rapid progress and the fields it might transform, in addition to the steps he believes must be taken to ensure it's not abused. Rao compared the advent of modern AI approaches with the iPhone. Like the iPhone, he said, machine learning -- a technique underlying systems from Amazon's Alexa to Google Lens -- wasn't the first form of AI, but it was nonetheless "exciting" and "consequential." He characterizes the coming AI revolution as the single largest transition the human species has ever encountered. "Few people anticipated the big-picture changes that smartphones would bring. No one foresaw that smartphones could make our work day substantially longer because we'd never get away from email," he said.