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Swarms of drones buzz overhead, while robotic vehicles crawl across the landscape. Orbiting satellites snap high-resolution images of the scene far below. Not one human being can be seen in the pre-dawn glow spreading across the land.
This isn’t some post-apocalyptic vision of the future à la The Terminator. This is a snapshot of the farm of the future. Every phase of the operation—from seed to harvest—may someday be automated, without the need to ever get one’s fingernails dirty.
In fact, it’s science fiction already being engineered into reality. Today, robots empowered with artificial intelligence can zap weeds with preternatural precision, while autonomous tractors move with tireless efficiency across the farmland. Satellites can assess crop health from outer space, providing gobs of data to help produce the sort of business intelligence once accessible only to Fortune 500 companies.
“Precision agriculture is on the brink of a new phase of development involving smart machines that can operate by themselves, which will allow production agriculture to become significantly more efficient. Precision agriculture is becoming robotic agriculture,” said professor Simon Blackmore last year during a conference in Asia on the latest developments in robotic agriculture. Blackmore is head of engineering at Harper Adams University and head of the National Centre for Precision Farming in the UK.
It’s Blackmore’s university that recently showcased what may someday be possible. The project, dubbed Hands Free Hectare and led by researchers from Harper Adams and private industry, farmed one hectare (about 2.5 acres) of spring barley without one person ever setting foot in the field.
The team re-purposed, re-wired and roboticized farm equipment ranging from a Japanese tractor to a 25-year-old combine. Drones served as scouts to survey the operation and collect samples to help the team monitor the progress of the barley. At the end of the season, the robo farmers harvested about 4.5 tons of barley at a price tag of £200,000.
“This project aimed to prove that there’s no technological reason why a field can’t be farmed without humans working the land directly now, and we’ve done that,” said Martin Abell, mechatronics researcher for Precision Decisions, which partnered with Harper Adams, in a press release.
I, Robot Farmer
The Harper Adams experiment is the latest example of how machines are disrupting the agricultural industry. Around the same time that the Hands Free Hectare combine was harvesting barley, Deere & Company announced it would acquire a startup called Blue River Technology for a reported $305 million.
Blue River has developed a “see-and-spray” system that combines computer vision and artificial intelligence to discriminate between crops and weeds. It hits the former with fertilizer and blasts the latter with herbicides with such precision that it can eliminate 90 percent of the chemicals used in conventional agriculture.
It’s not just farmland that’s getting a helping hand from robots. A California company called Abundant Robotics, spun out of the nonprofit research institute SRI International, is developing robots capable of picking apples with vacuum-like arms that suck the fruit straight off the trees in the orchards.
“Traditional robots were designed to perform very specific tasks over and over again. But the robots that will be used in food and agricultural applications will have to be much more flexible than what we’ve seen in automotive manufacturing plants in order to deal with natural variation in food products or the outdoor environment,” Dan Harburg, an associate at venture capital firm Anterra Capital who previously worked at a Massachusetts-based startup making a robotic arm capable of grabbing fruit, told AgFunder News.
“This means ag-focused robotics startups have to design systems from the ground up, which can take time and money, and their robots have to be able to complete multiple tasks to avoid sitting on the shelf for a significant portion of the year,” he noted.
Eyes in the Sky
It will take more than an army of robotic tractors to grow a successful crop. The farm of the future will rely on drones, satellites, and other airborne instruments to provide data about their crops on the ground.
Companies like Descartes Labs, for instance, employ machine learning to analyze satellite imagery to forecast soy and corn yields. The Los Alamos, New Mexico startup collects five terabytes of data every day from multiple satellite constellations, including NASA and the European Space Agency. Combined with weather readings and other real-time inputs, Descartes Labs can predict cornfield yields with 99 percent accuracy. Its AI platform can even assess crop health from infrared readings.
The US agency DARPA recently granted Descartes Labs $1.5 million to monitor and analyze wheat yields in the Middle East and Africa. The idea is that accurate forecasts may help identify regions at risk of crop failure, which could lead to famine and political unrest. Another company called TellusLabs out of Somerville, Massachusetts also employs machine learning algorithms to predict corn and soy yields with similar accuracy from satellite imagery.
Farmers don’t have to reach orbit to get insights on their cropland. A startup in Oakland, Ceres Imaging, produces high-resolution imagery from multispectral cameras flown across fields aboard small planes. The snapshots capture the landscape at different wavelengths, identifying insights into problems like water stress, as well as providing estimates of chlorophyll and nitrogen levels. The geo-tagged images mean farmers can easily locate areas that need to be addressed.
Growing From the Inside
Even the best intelligence—whether from drones, satellites, or machine learning algorithms—will be challenged to predict the unpredictable issues posed by climate change. That’s one reason more and more companies are betting the farm on what’s called controlled environment agriculture. Today, that doesn’t just mean fancy greenhouses, but everything from warehouse-sized, automated vertical farms to grow rooms run by robots, located not in the emptiness of Kansas or Nebraska but smack dab in the middle of the main streets of America.
Proponents of these new concepts argue these high-tech indoor farms can produce much higher yields while drastically reducing water usage and synthetic inputs like fertilizer and herbicides.
Iron Ox, out of San Francisco, is developing one-acre urban greenhouses that will be operated by robots and reportedly capable of producing the equivalent of 30 acres of farmland. Powered by artificial intelligence, a team of three robots will run the entire operation of planting, nurturing, and harvesting the crops.
Vertical farming startup Plenty, also based in San Francisco, uses AI to automate its operations, and got a $200 million vote of confidence from the SoftBank Vision Fund earlier this year. The company claims its system uses only 1 percent of the water consumed in conventional agriculture while producing 350 times as much produce. Plenty is part of a new crop of urban-oriented farms, including Bowery Farming and AeroFarms.
“What I can envision is locating a larger scale indoor farm in the economically disadvantaged food desert, in order to stimulate a broader economic impact that could create jobs and generate income for that area,” said Dr. Gary Stutte, an expert in space agriculture and controlled environment agriculture, in an interview with AgFunder News. “The indoor agriculture model is adaptable to becoming an engine for economic growth and food security in both rural and urban food deserts.”
Still, the model is not without its own challenges and criticisms. Most of what these farms can produce falls into the “leafy greens” category and often comes with a premium price, which seems antithetical to the proposed mission of creating oases in the food deserts of cities. While water usage may be minimized, the electricity required to power the operation, especially the LEDs (which played a huge part in revolutionizing indoor agriculture), are not cheap.
Still, all of these advances, from robo farmers to automated greenhouses, may need to be part of a future where nearly 10 billion people will inhabit the planet by 2050. An oft-quoted statistic from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations says the world must boost food production by 70 percent to meet the needs of the population. Technology may not save the world, but it will help feed it.
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INTERNET OF THINGSAmazon Key Is a New Service That Lets Couriers Unlock Your Front DoorBen Popper | The Verge“When a courier arrives with a package for in-home delivery, they scan the barcode, sending a request to Amazon’s cloud. If everything checks out, the cloud grants permission by sending a message back to the camera, which starts recording. The courier then gets a prompt on their app, swipes the screen, and voilà, your door unlocks.”
ROBOTICSWatch Yamaha’s Humanoid Robot Ride a Motorcycle Around a RacetrackPhilip E. Ross | IEEE Spectrum“What’s striking is that the bike is unmodified: the robot is a hunched-over form on top. It senses the environment, calculates what to do, keeps the bike stable, manages acceleration and deceleration—all while factoring in road conditions, air resistance, and engine braking.”
ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCETech Giants Are Paying Huge Salaries for Scarce A.I. TalentCade Metz | The New York Times“Typical A.I. specialists, including both Ph.D.s fresh out of school and people with less education and just a few years of experience, can be paid from $300,000 to $500,000 a year or more in salary and company stock, according to nine people who work for major tech companies or have entertained job offers from them. All of them requested anonymity because they did not want to damage their professional prospects.”
HEALTH This Doctor Diagnosed His Own Cancer With an iPhone UltrasoundAntonio Regalado | MIT Technology Review“The device he used, called the Butterfly IQ, is the first solid-state ultrasound machine to reach the market in the U.S. Ultrasound works by shooting sound into the body and capturing the echoes. Usually, the sound waves are generated by a vibrating crystal. But Butterfly’s machine instead uses 9,000 tiny drums etched onto a semiconductor chip.”
ENTREPRENEURSHIPWeWork: A $20 Billion Startup Fueled by Silicon Valley Pixie DustEliot Brown | Wall Street Journal“WeWork’s strategy carries the costs and risks associated with traditional real estate. Its client list is heavily weighted toward startups that may or may not be around for long. WeWork is on the hook for long-term leases, and it doesn’t own its own buildings. Vacancy rates have risen recently, and the company is increasing incentives to draw tenants… The model has proved popular, with 150,000 individuals renting space in more than 170 locations globally.”
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Some people are afraid that heavily armed artificially intelligent robots might take over the world, enslaving humanity—or perhaps exterminating us. These people, including tech-industry billionaire Elon Musk and eminent physicist Stephen Hawking, say artificial intelligence technology needs to be regulated to manage the risks. But Microsoft founder Bill Gates and Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg disagree, saying the technology is not nearly advanced enough for those worries to be realistic.
As someone who researches how AI works in robotic decision-making, drones and self-driving vehicles, I’ve seen how beneficial it can be. I’ve developed AI software that lets robots working in teams make individual decisions as part of collective efforts to explore and solve problems. Researchers are already subject to existing rules, regulations and laws designed to protect public safety. Imposing further limitations risks reducing the potential for innovation with AI systems.
How is AI regulated now?
While the term “artificial intelligence” may conjure fantastical images of human-like robots, most people have encountered AI before. It helps us find similar products while shopping, offers movie and TV recommendations, and helps us search for websites. It grades student writing, provides personalized tutoring, and even recognizes objects carried through airport scanners.
In each case, the AI makes things easier for humans. For example, the AI software I developed could be used to plan and execute a search of a field for a plant or animal as part of a science experiment. But even as the AI frees people from doing this work, it is still basing its actions on human decisions and goals about where to search and what to look for.
In areas like these and many others, AI has the potential to do far more good than harm—if used properly. But I don’t believe additional regulations are currently needed. There are already laws on the books of nations, states, and towns governing civil and criminal liabilities for harmful actions. Our drones, for example, must obey FAA regulations, while the self-driving car AI must obey regular traffic laws to operate on public roadways.
Existing laws also cover what happens if a robot injures or kills a person, even if the injury is accidental and the robot’s programmer or operator isn’t criminally responsible. While lawmakers and regulators may need to refine responsibility for AI systems’ actions as technology advances, creating regulations beyond those that already exist could prohibit or slow the development of capabilities that would be overwhelmingly beneficial.
Potential risks from artificial intelligence
It may seem reasonable to worry about researchers developing very advanced artificial intelligence systems that can operate entirely outside human control. A common thought experiment deals with a self-driving car forced to make a decision about whether to run over a child who just stepped into the road or veer off into a guardrail, injuring the car’s occupants and perhaps even those in another vehicle.
Musk and Hawking, among others, worry that a hyper-capable AI system, no longer limited to a single set of tasks like controlling a self-driving car, might decide it doesn’t need humans anymore. It might even look at human stewardship of the planet, the interpersonal conflicts, theft, fraud, and frequent wars, and decide that the world would be better without people.
Science fiction author Isaac Asimov tried to address this potential by proposing three laws limiting robot decision-making: Robots cannot injure humans or allow them “to come to harm.” They must also obey humans—unless this would harm humans—and protect themselves, as long as this doesn’t harm humans or ignore an order.
But Asimov himself knew the three laws were not enough. And they don’t reflect the complexity of human values. What constitutes “harm” is an example: Should a robot protect humanity from suffering related to overpopulation, or should it protect individuals’ freedoms to make personal reproductive decisions?
We humans have already wrestled with these questions in our own, non-artificial intelligences. Researchers have proposed restrictions on human freedoms, including reducing reproduction, to control people’s behavior, population growth, and environmental damage. In general, society has decided against using those methods, even if their goals seem reasonable. Similarly, rather than regulating what AI systems can and can’t do, in my view it would be better to teach them human ethics and values—like parents do with human children.
Artificial intelligence benefits
People already benefit from AI every day—but this is just the beginning. AI-controlled robots could assist law enforcement in responding to human gunmen. Current police efforts must focus on preventing officers from being injured, but robots could step into harm’s way, potentially changing the outcomes of cases like the recent shooting of an armed college student at Georgia Tech and an unarmed high school student in Austin.
Intelligent robots can help humans in other ways, too. They can perform repetitive tasks, like processing sensor data, where human boredom may cause mistakes. They can limit human exposure to dangerous materials and dangerous situations, such as when decontaminating a nuclear reactor, working in areas humans can’t go. In general, AI robots can provide humans with more time to pursue whatever they define as happiness by freeing them from having to do other work.
Achieving most of these benefits will require a lot more research and development. Regulations that make it more expensive to develop AIs or prevent certain uses may delay or forestall those efforts. This is particularly true for small businesses and individuals—key drivers of new technologies—who are not as well equipped to deal with regulation compliance as larger companies. In fact, the biggest beneficiary of AI regulation may be large companies that are used to dealing with it, because startups will have a harder time competing in a regulated environment.
The need for innovation
Humanity faced a similar set of issues in the early days of the internet. But the United States actively avoided regulating the internet to avoid stunting its early growth. Musk’s PayPal and numerous other businesses helped build the modern online world while subject only to regular human-scale rules, like those preventing theft and fraud.
Artificial intelligence systems have the potential to change how humans do just about everything. Scientists, engineers, programmers, and entrepreneurs need time to develop the technologies—and deliver their benefits. Their work should be free from concern that some AIs might be banned, and from the delays and costs associated with new AI-specific regulations.
This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.
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In an interview at Singularity University’s Global Summit in San Francisco, Andreas Gal explained how his company is applying artificial intelligence to the Internet of Things (IoT). Gal is the former CTO of Mozilla and is currently CEO of Silk Labs.
“For us, the value of IoT is not really in making things connected,” Gal said. “It’s really about bringing intelligence to these devices, and that’s what we are focused on. We are bringing the latest advances in AI technology directly into these devices.”
Watch the interview to learn how infusing machine learning into IoT devices can take them beyond simple connection to add much greater value.
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