Thirteen researchers from the Oregon State University College of Engineering are part of a $20 million federal effort, known as the AgAID Institute, to develop artificial intelligence to tackle mounting agricultural challenges such as diminishing water and labor supplies, weather variations and climate change.
“It is essential to improve the robustness, efficiency and adaptability of food production,” said Alan Fern, professor of computer science and the principal investigator representing OSU. “The institute aims to achieve this by identifying the best ways to integrate humans and AI/robotics technology.”
Washington State University is the leading the AgAID Institute, whose other partners along with OSU are the University of Virginia, Kansas State University, Carnegie Mellon University, Heritage University, Wenatchee Valley College and the University of California, Merced.
The AgAID Institute seeks to involve the people who will use the AI tools – like farm workers and policymakers – in their development, said Washington State’s Ananth Kalyanaraman, the institute’s lead principal investigator.
“Humans manipulate crops on a daily basis and make complex decisions, such as how to allocate water or mitigate the effects of an incoming storm,” said Kalyanaraman. “We aim to partner human knowledge with AI in a way that amplifies the end outcomes.”
Oregon State’s team will lead the institute’s fundamental and applied research in AI, robotics and human factors, Fern said. The OSU group will work closely with agriculture researchers and with agricultural researchers and others, including farmers, ranchers and those working in growing and harvesting agricultural commodities.
Hosting the Collaborative Robotics and Intelligent Systems Institute, Oregon State’s robotics program is a national leader and features more than 25 faculty and 180 graduate students. OSU researchers strive to look beyond technological development, exploring robotics and intelligent systems holistically, with a special look at their impact on people.
“Humans and AI/robotics have very different capabilities and competencies and there are many possible ways of combining them for any given agricultural application, but only some of those combinations will be effective,” Fern said. “We want to design and build workflows that have real utility and thus actually get used.”
IBM Research and the start-up innov8.ag also are industry partners to AgAID, whose core researchers will connect with other higher education institutions, nonprofits and government entities across the country to provide education and workforce opportunities to diverse groups.
The institute plans multiple education programs from K-12 through higher education and worker training, Fern said, with the goal of raising AI skill levels, opening new career paths and attracting more people to agriculture and computing professions.
The AgAID Institute will take on challenging test cases such as apples, cherries, mint and almonds, all of which require intensive labor throughout the year and significant irrigation, and are vulnerable to weather events and climate change. Specialty crops such as those involve 87% of the U.S. agricultural workforce, and about 40% of them are perennial, meaning long-term management is required in pruning, thinning and harvesting.
“We know that AI has a serious potential to make groundbreaking discoveries and transform our decision-making capabilities in a data-informed way, but the technology needs to be developed in a very careful manner,” Kalyanaraman said.
The AgAID Institute is one of 11 centers just launched by the National Science Foundation through its National AI Research Institutions program. The effort is in partnership with the United States Department of Agriculture, the National Institute of Food and Agriculture, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security Science & Technology Directorate and the U.S. Department of Transportation Federal Highway Administration.
“I am delighted to announce the establishment of new NSF National AI Research Institutes as we look to expand into all 50 states,” said National Science Foundation Director Sethuraman Panchanathan. “These institutes are hubs for academia, industry and government to accelerate discovery and innovation in AI. They lead to new capabilities that improve our lives from medicine to entertainment to transportation and cybersecurity while growing the economy and maintaining global competitiveness.”