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#432027 We Read This 800-Page Report on the ...

The longevity field is bustling but still fragmented, and the “silver tsunami” is coming.

That is the takeaway of The Science of Longevity, the behemoth first volume of a four-part series offering a bird’s-eye view of the longevity industry in 2017. The report, a joint production of the Biogerontology Research Foundation, Deep Knowledge Life Science, Aging Analytics Agency, and Longevity.International, synthesizes the growing array of academic and industry ventures related to aging, healthspan, and everything in between.

This is huge, not only in scale but also in ambition. The report, totally worth a read here, will be followed by four additional volumes in 2018, covering topics ranging from the business side of longevity ventures to financial systems to potential tensions between life extension and religion.

And that’s just the first step. The team hopes to publish updated versions of the report annually, giving scientists, investors, and regulatory agencies an easy way to keep their finger on the longevity pulse.

“In 2018, ‘aging’ remains an unnamed adversary in an undeclared war. For all intents and purposes it is mere abstraction in the eyes of regulatory authorities worldwide,” the authors write.

That needs to change.

People often arrive at the field of aging from disparate areas with wildly diverse opinions and strengths. The report compiles these individual efforts at cracking aging into a systematic resource—a “periodic table” for longevity that clearly lays out emerging trends and promising interventions.

The ultimate goal? A global framework serving as a road map to guide the burgeoning industry. With such a framework in hand, academics and industry alike are finally poised to petition the kind of large-scale investments and regulatory changes needed to tackle aging with a unified front.

Infographic depicting many of the key research hubs and non-profits within the field of geroscience.
Image Credit: Longevity.International
The Aging Globe
The global population is rapidly aging. And our medical and social systems aren’t ready to handle this oncoming “silver tsunami.”

Take the medical field. Many age-related diseases such as Alzheimer’s lack effective treatment options. Others, including high blood pressure, stroke, lung or heart problems, require continuous medication and monitoring, placing enormous strain on medical resources.

What’s more, because disease risk rises exponentially with age, medical care for the elderly becomes a game of whack-a-mole: curing any individual disease such as cancer only increases healthy lifespan by two to three years before another one hits.

That’s why in recent years there’s been increasing support for turning the focus to the root of the problem: aging. Rather than tackling individual diseases, geroscience aims to add healthy years to our lifespan—extending “healthspan,” so to speak.

Despite this relative consensus, the field still faces a roadblock. The US FDA does not yet recognize aging as a bona fide disease. Without such a designation, scientists are banned from testing potential interventions for aging in clinical trials (that said, many have used alternate measures such as age-related biomarkers or Alzheimer’s symptoms as a proxy).

Luckily, the FDA’s stance is set to change. The promising anti-aging drug metformin, for example, is already in clinical trials, examining its effect on a variety of age-related symptoms and diseases. This report, and others to follow, may help push progress along.

“It is critical for investors, policymakers, scientists, NGOs, and influential entities to prioritize the amelioration of the geriatric world scenario and recognize aging as a critical matter of global economic security,” the authors say.

Biomedical Gerontology
The causes of aging are complex, stubborn, and not all clear.

But the report lays out two main streams of intervention with already promising results.

The first is to understand the root causes of aging and stop them before damage accumulates. It’s like meddling with cogs and other inner workings of a clock to slow it down, the authors say.

The report lays out several treatments to keep an eye on.

Geroprotective drugs is a big one. Often repurposed from drugs already on the market, these traditional small molecule drugs target a wide variety of metabolic pathways that play a role in aging. Think anti-oxidants, anti-inflammatory, and drugs that mimic caloric restriction, a proven way to extend healthspan in animal models.

More exciting are the emerging technologies. One is nanotechnology. Nanoparticles of carbon, “bucky-balls,” for example, have already been shown to fight viral infections and dangerous ion particles, as well as stimulate the immune system and extend lifespan in mice (though others question the validity of the results).

Blood is another promising, if surprising, fountain of youth: recent studies found that molecules in the blood of the young rejuvenate the heart, brain, and muscles of aged rodents, though many of these findings have yet to be replicated.

Rejuvenation Biotechnology
The second approach is repair and maintenance.

Rather than meddling with inner clockwork, here we force back the hands of a clock to set it back. The main example? Stem cell therapy.

This type of approach would especially benefit the brain, which harbors small, scattered numbers of stem cells that deplete with age. For neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s, in which neurons progressively die off, stem cell therapy could in theory replace those lost cells and mend those broken circuits.

Once a blue-sky idea, the discovery of induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs), where scientists can turn skin and other mature cells back into a stem-like state, hugely propelled the field into near reality. But to date, stem cells haven’t been widely adopted in clinics.

It’s “a toolkit of highly innovative, highly invasive technologies with clinical trials still a great many years off,” the authors say.

But there is a silver lining. The boom in 3D tissue printing offers an alternative approach to stem cells in replacing aging organs. Recent investment from the Methuselah Foundation and other institutions suggests interest remains high despite still being a ways from mainstream use.

A Disruptive Future
“We are finally beginning to see an industry emerge from mankind’s attempts to make sense of the biological chaos,” the authors conclude.

Looking through the trends, they identified several technologies rapidly gaining steam.

One is artificial intelligence, which is already used to bolster drug discovery. Machine learning may also help identify new longevity genes or bring personalized medicine to the clinic based on a patient’s records or biomarkers.

Another is senolytics, a class of drugs that kill off “zombie cells.” Over 10 prospective candidates are already in the pipeline, with some expected to enter the market in less than a decade, the authors say.

Finally, there’s the big gun—gene therapy. The treatment, unlike others mentioned, can directly target the root of any pathology. With a snip (or a swap), genetic tools can turn off damaging genes or switch on ones that promote a youthful profile. It is the most preventative technology at our disposal.

There have already been some success stories in animal models. Using gene therapy, rodents given a boost in telomerase activity, which lengthens the protective caps of DNA strands, live healthier for longer.

“Although it is the prospect farthest from widespread implementation, it may ultimately prove the most influential,” the authors say.

Ultimately, can we stop the silver tsunami before it strikes?

Perhaps not, the authors say. But we do have defenses: the technologies outlined in the report, though still immature, could one day stop the oncoming tidal wave in its tracks.

Now we just have to bring them out of the lab and into the real world. To push the transition along, the team launched Longevity.International, an online meeting ground that unites various stakeholders in the industry.

By providing scientists, entrepreneurs, investors, and policy-makers a platform for learning and discussion, the authors say, we may finally generate enough drive to implement our defenses against aging. The war has begun.

Read the report in full here, and watch out for others coming soon here. The second part of the report profiles 650 (!!!) longevity-focused research hubs, non-profits, scientists, conferences, and literature. It’s an enormously helpful resource—totally worth keeping it in your back pocket for future reference.

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Posted in Human Robots

#432009 How Swarm Intelligence Is Making Simple ...

As a group, simple creatures following simple rules can display a surprising amount of complexity, efficiency, and even creativity. Known as swarm intelligence, this trait is found throughout nature, but researchers have recently begun using it to transform various fields such as robotics, data mining, medicine, and blockchains.

Ants, for example, can only perform a limited range of functions, but an ant colony can build bridges, create superhighways of food and information, wage war, and enslave other ant species—all of which are beyond the comprehension of any single ant. Likewise, schools of fish, flocks of birds, beehives, and other species exhibit behavior indicative of planning by a higher intelligence that doesn’t actually exist.

It happens by a process called stigmergy. Simply put, a small change by a group member causes other members to behave differently, leading to a new pattern of behavior.

When an ant finds a food source, it marks the path with pheromones. This attracts other ants to that path, leads them to the food source, and prompts them to mark the same path with more pheromones. Over time, the most efficient route will become the superhighway, as the faster and easier a path is, the more ants will reach the food and the more pheromones will be on the path. Thus, it looks as if a more intelligent being chose the best path, but it emerged from the tiny, simple changes made by individuals.

So what does this mean for humans? Well, a lot. In the past few decades, researchers have developed numerous algorithms and metaheuristics, such as ant colony optimization and particle swarm optimization, and they are rapidly being adopted.

Swarm Robotics
A swarm of robots would work on the same principles as an ant colony: each member has a simple set of rules to follow, leading to self-organization and self-sufficiency.

For example, researchers at Georgia Robotics and InTelligent Systems (GRITS) created a small swarm of simple robots that can spell and play piano. The robots cannot communicate, but based solely on the position of surrounding robots, they are able to use their specially-created algorithm to determine the optimal path to complete their task.

This is also immensely useful for drone swarms.

Last February, Ehang, an aviation company out of China, created a swarm of a thousand drones that not only lit the sky with colorful, intricate displays, but demonstrated the ability to improvise and troubleshoot errors entirely autonomously.

Further, just recently, the University of Cambridge and Koc University unveiled their idea for what they call the Energy Neutral Internet of Drones. Amazingly, this drone swarm would take initiative to share information or energy with other drones that did not receive a communication or are running low on energy.

Militaries all of the world are utilizing this as well.

Last year, the US Department of Defense announced it had successfully tested a swarm of miniature drones that could carry out complex missions cheaper and more efficiently. They claimed, “The micro-drones demonstrated advanced swarm behaviors such as collective decision-making, adaptive formation flying, and self-healing.”

Some experts estimate at least 30 nations are actively developing drone swarms—and even submersible drones—for military missions, including intelligence gathering, missile defense, precision missile strikes, and enhanced communication.

NASA also plans on deploying swarms of tiny spacecraft for space exploration, and the medical community is looking into using swarms of nanobots for precision delivery of drugs, microsurgery, targeting toxins, and biological sensors.

What If Humans Are the Ants?
The strength of any blockchain comes from the size and diversity of the community supporting it. Cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin, Ethereum, and Litecoin are driven by the people using, investing in, and, most importantly, mining them so their blockchains can function. Without an active community, or swarm, their blockchains wither away.

When viewed from a great height, a blockchain performs eerily like an ant colony in that it will naturally find the most efficient way to move vast amounts of information.

Miners compete with each other to perform the complex calculations necessary to add another block, for which the winner is rewarded with the blockchain’s native currency and agreed-upon fees. Of course, the miner with the more powerful computers is more likely to win the reward, thereby empowering the winner’s ability to mine and receive even more rewards. Over time, fewer and fewer miners are going to exist, as the winners are able to more efficiently shoulder more of the workload, in much the same way that ants build superhighways.

Further, a company called Unanimous AI has developed algorithms that allow humans to collectively make predictions. So far, the AI algorithms and their human participants have made some astoundingly accurate predictions, such as the first four winning horses of the Kentucky Derby, the Oscar winners, the Stanley Cup winners, and others. The more people involved in the swarm, the greater their predictive power will be.

To be clear, this is not a prediction based on group consensus. Rather, the swarm of humans uses software to input their opinions in real time, thus making micro-changes to the rest of the swarm and the inputs of other members.

Studies show that swarm intelligence consistently outperforms individuals and crowds working without the algorithms. While this is only the tip of the iceberg, some have suggested swarm intelligence can revolutionize how doctors diagnose a patient or how products are marketed to consumers. It might even be an essential step in truly creating AI.

While swarm intelligence is an essential part of many species’ success, it’s only a matter of time before humans harness its effectiveness as well.

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Posted in Human Robots

#431559 Drug Discovery AI to Scour a Universe of ...

On a dark night, away from city lights, the stars of the Milky Way can seem uncountable. Yet from any given location no more than 4,500 are visible to the naked eye. Meanwhile, our galaxy has 100–400 billion stars, and there are even more galaxies in the universe.
The numbers of the night sky are humbling. And they give us a deep perspective…on drugs.
Yes, this includes wow-the-stars-are-freaking-amazing-tonight drugs, but also the kinds of drugs that make us well again when we’re sick. The number of possible organic compounds with “drug-like” properties dwarfs the number of stars in the universe by over 30 orders of magnitude.
Next to this multiverse of possibility, the chemical configurations scientists have made into actual medicines are like the smattering of stars you’d glimpse downtown.
But for good reason.
Exploring all that potential drug-space is as humanly impossible as exploring all of physical space, and even if we could, most of what we’d find wouldn’t fit our purposes. Still, the idea that wonder drugs must surely lurk amid the multitudes is too tantalizing to ignore.
Which is why, Alex Zhavoronkov said at Singularity University’s Exponential Medicine in San Diego last week, we should use artificial intelligence to do more of the legwork and speed discovery. This, he said, could be one of the next big medical applications for AI.
Dogs, Diagnosis, and Drugs
Zhavoronkov is CEO of Insilico Medicine and CSO of the Biogerontology Research Foundation. Insilico is one of a number of AI startups aiming to accelerate drug discovery with AI.
In recent years, Zhavoronkov said, the now-famous machine learning technique, deep learning, has made progress on a number of fronts. Algorithms that can teach themselves to play games—like DeepMind’s AlphaGo Zero or Carnegie Mellon’s poker playing AI—are perhaps the most headline-grabbing of the bunch. But pattern recognition was the thing that kicked deep learning into overdrive early on, when machine learning algorithms went from struggling to tell dogs and cats apart to outperforming their peers and then their makers in quick succession.
[Watch this video for an AI update from Neil Jacobstein, chair of Artificial Intelligence and Robotics at Singularity University.]

In medicine, deep learning algorithms trained on databases of medical images can spot life-threatening disease with equal or greater accuracy than human professionals. There’s even speculation that AI, if we learn to trust it, could be invaluable in diagnosing disease. And, as Zhavoronkov noted, with more applications and a longer track record that trust is coming.
“Tesla is already putting cars on the street,” Zhavoronkov said. “Three-year, four-year-old technology is already carrying passengers from point A to point B, at 100 miles an hour, and one mistake and you’re dead. But people are trusting their lives to this technology.”
“So, why don’t we do it in pharma?”
Trial and Error and Try Again
AI wouldn’t drive the car in pharmaceutical research. It’d be an assistant that, when paired with a chemist or two, could fast-track discovery by screening more possibilities for better candidates.
There’s plenty of room to make things more efficient, according to Zhavoronkov.
Drug discovery is arduous and expensive. Chemists sift tens of thousands of candidate compounds for the most promising to synthesize. Of these, a handful will go on to further research, fewer will make it to human clinical trials, and a fraction of those will be approved.
The whole process can take many years and cost hundreds of millions of dollars.
This is a big data problem if ever there was one, and deep learning thrives on big data. Early applications have shown their worth unearthing subtle patterns in huge training databases. Although drug-makers already use software to sift compounds, such software requires explicit rules written by chemists. AI’s allure is its ability to learn and improve on its own.
“There are two strategies for AI-driven innovation in pharma to ensure you get better molecules and much faster approvals,” Zhavoronkov said. “One is looking for the needle in the haystack, and another one is creating a new needle.”
To find the needle in the haystack, algorithms are trained on large databases of molecules. Then they go looking for molecules with attractive properties. But creating a new needle? That’s a possibility enabled by the generative adversarial networks Zhavoronkov specializes in.
Such algorithms pit two neural networks against each other. One generates meaningful output while the other judges whether this output is true or false, Zhavoronkov said. Together, the networks generate new objects like text, images, or in this case, molecular structures.
“We started employing this particular technology to make deep neural networks imagine new molecules, to make it perfect right from the start. So, to come up with really perfect needles,” Zhavoronkov said. “[You] can essentially go to this [generative adversarial network] and ask it to create molecules that inhibit protein X at concentration Y, with the highest viability, specific characteristics, and minimal side effects.”
Zhavoronkov believes AI can find or fabricate more needles from the array of molecular possibilities, freeing human chemists to focus on synthesizing only the most promising. If it works, he hopes we can increase hits, minimize misses, and generally speed the process up.
Proof’s in the Pudding
Insilico isn’t alone on its drug-discovery quest, nor is it a brand new area of interest.
Last year, a Harvard group published a paper on an AI that similarly suggests drug candidates. The software trained on 250,000 drug-like molecules and used its experience to generate new molecules that blended existing drugs and made suggestions based on desired properties.
An MIT Technology Review article on the subject highlighted a few of the challenges such systems may still face. The results returned aren’t always meaningful or easy to synthesize in the lab, and the quality of these results, as always, is only as good as the data dined upon.
Stanford chemistry professor and Andreesen Horowitz partner, Vijay Pande, said that images, speech, and text—three of the areas deep learning’s made quick strides in—have better, cleaner data. Chemical data, on the other hand, is still being optimized for deep learning. Also, while there are public databases, much data still lives behind closed doors at private companies.
To overcome the challenges and prove their worth, Zhavoronkov said, his company is very focused on validating the tech. But this year, skepticism in the pharmaceutical industry seems to be easing into interest and investment.
AI drug discovery startup Exscientia inked a deal with Sanofi for $280 million and GlaxoSmithKline for $42 million. Insilico is also partnering with GlaxoSmithKline, and Numerate is working with Takeda Pharmaceutical. Even Google may jump in. According to an article in Nature outlining the field, the firm’s deep learning project, Google Brain, is growing its biosciences team, and industry watchers wouldn’t be surprised to see them target drug discovery.
With AI and the hardware running it advancing rapidly, the greatest potential may yet be ahead. Perhaps, one day, all 1060 molecules in drug-space will be at our disposal. “You should take all the data you have, build n new models, and search as much of that 1060 as possible” before every decision you make, Brandon Allgood, CTO at Numerate, told Nature.
Today’s projects need to live up to their promises, of course, but Zhavoronkov believes AI will have a big impact in the coming years, and now’s the time to integrate it. “If you are working for a pharma company, and you’re still thinking, ‘Okay, where is the proof?’ Once there is a proof, and once you can see it to believe it—it’s going to be too late,” he said.
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Posted in Human Robots

#431424 A ‘Google Maps’ for the Mouse Brain ...

Ask any neuroscientist to draw you a neuron, and it’ll probably look something like a star with two tails: one stubby with extensive tree-like branches, the other willowy, lengthy and dotted with spindly spikes.
While a decent abstraction, this cartoonish image hides the uncomfortable truth that scientists still don’t know much about what many neurons actually look like, not to mention the extent of their connections.
But without untangling the jumbled mess of neural wires that zigzag across the brain, scientists are stumped in trying to answer one of the most fundamental mysteries of the brain: how individual neuronal threads carry and assemble information, which forms the basis of our thoughts, memories, consciousness, and self.
What if there was a way to virtually trace and explore the brain’s serpentine fibers, much like the way Google Maps allows us to navigate the concrete tangles of our cities’ highways?
Thanks to an interdisciplinary team at Janelia Research Campus, we’re on our way. Meet MouseLight, the most extensive map of the mouse brain ever attempted. The ongoing project has an ambitious goal: reconstructing thousands—if not more—of the mouse’s 70 million neurons into a 3D map. (You can play with it here!)
With map in hand, neuroscientists around the world can begin to answer how neural circuits are organized in the brain, and how information flows from one neuron to another across brain regions and hemispheres.
The first release, presented Monday at the Society for Neuroscience Annual Conference in Washington, DC, contains information about the shape and sizes of 300 neurons.
And that’s just the beginning.
“MouseLight’s new dataset is the largest of its kind,” says Dr. Wyatt Korff, director of project teams. “It’s going to change the textbook view of neurons.”

http://mouselight.janelia.org/assets/carousel/ML-Movie.mp4
Brain Atlas
MouseLight is hardly the first rodent brain atlasing project.
The Mouse Brain Connectivity Atlas at the Allen Institute for Brain Science in Seattle tracks neuron activity across small circuits in an effort to trace a mouse’s connectome—a complete atlas of how the firing of one neuron links to the next.
MICrONS (Machine Intelligence from Cortical Networks), the $100 million government-funded “moonshot” hopes to distill brain computation into algorithms for more powerful artificial intelligence. Its first step? Brain mapping.
What makes MouseLight stand out is its scope and level of detail.
MICrONS, for example, is focused on dissecting a cubic millimeter of the mouse visual processing center. In contrast, MouseLight involves tracing individual neurons across the entire brain.
And while connectomics outlines the major connections between brain regions, the birds-eye view entirely misses the intricacies of each individual neuron. This is where MouseLight steps in.
Slice and Dice
With a width only a fraction of a human hair, neuron projections are hard to capture in their native state. Tug or squeeze the brain too hard, and the long, delicate branches distort or even shred into bits.
In fact, previous attempts at trying to reconstruct neurons at this level of detail topped out at just a dozen, stymied by technological hiccups and sky-high costs.
A few years ago, the MouseLight team set out to automate the entire process, with a few time-saving tweaks. Here’s how it works.
After injecting a mouse with a virus that causes a handful of neurons to produce a green-glowing protein, the team treated the brain with a sugar alcohol solution. This step “clears” the brain, transforming the beige-colored organ to translucent, making it easier for light to penetrate and boosting the signal-to-background noise ratio. The brain is then glued onto a small pedestal and ready for imaging.
Building upon an established method called “two-photon microscopy,” the team then tweaked several parameters to reduce imaging time from days (or weeks) down to a fraction of that. Endearingly known as “2P” by the experts, this type of laser microscope zaps the tissue with just enough photos to light up a single plane without damaging the tissue—sharper plane, better focus, crisper image.
After taking an image, the setup activates its vibrating razor and shaves off the imaged section of the brain—a waspy slice about 200 micrometers thick. The process is repeated until the whole brain is imaged.
This setup increased imaging speed by 16 to 48 times faster than conventional microscopy, writes team leader Dr. Jayaram Chandrashekar, who published a version of the method early last year in eLife.
The resulting images strikingly highlight every crook and cranny of a neuronal branch, popping out against a pitch-black background. But pretty pictures come at a hefty data cost: each image takes up a whopping 20 terabytes of data—roughly the storage space of 4,000 DVDs, or 10,000 hours of movies.
Stitching individual images back into 3D is an image-processing nightmare. The MouseLight team used a combination of computational power and human prowess to complete this final step.
The reconstructed images are handed off to a mighty team of seven trained neuron trackers. With the help of tracing algorithms developed in-house and a keen eye, each member can track roughly a neuron a day—significantly less time than the week or so previously needed.
A Numbers Game
Even with just 300 fully reconstructed neurons, MouseLight has already revealed new secrets of the brain.
While it’s widely accepted that axons, the neurons’ outgoing projection, can span the entire length of the brain, these extra-long connections were considered relatively rare. (In fact, one previously discovered “giant neuron” was thought to link to consciousness because of its expansive connections).
Images captured from two-photon microscopy show an axon and dendrites protruding from a neuron’s cell body (sphere in center). Image Credit: Janelia Research Center, MouseLight project team
MouseLight blows that theory out of the water.
The data clearly shows that “giant neurons” are far more common than previously thought. For example, four neurons normally associated with taste had wiry branches that stretched all the way into brain areas that control movement and process touch.
“We knew that different regions of the brain talked to each other, but seeing it in 3D is different,” says Dr. Eve Marder at Brandeis University.
“The results are so stunning because they give you a really clear view of how the whole brain is connected.”
With a tested and true system in place, the team is now aiming to add 700 neurons to their collection within a year.
But appearance is only part of the story.
We can’t tell everything about a person simply by how they look. Neurons are the same: scientists can only infer so much about a neuron’s function by looking at their shape and positions. The team also hopes to profile the gene expression patterns of each neuron, which could provide more hints to their roles in the brain.
MouseLight essentially dissects the neural infrastructure that allows information traffic to flow through the brain. These anatomical highways are just the foundation. Just like Google Maps, roads form only the critical first layer of the map. Street view, traffic information and other add-ons come later for a complete look at cities in flux.
The same will happen for understanding our ever-changing brain.
Image Credit: Janelia Research Campus, MouseLight project team Continue reading

Posted in Human Robots

#431377 The Farms of the Future Will Be ...

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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