The cultivation and domestication of plants and animals first began around 12,000 years ago, making agriculture the oldest of all enterprises. It is still among the largest. Despite this heritage, the timeless uncertainties of weather, land, and demand are driving the industry to adopt artificial intelligence (AI) technologies – at least in the developed world. One example is the Western Growers Center for Innovation & Technology (WGCIT) in Salinas, California. The WGCIT was created to discover new technologies, set up testing, facilitate industry feedback, and communicate progress to produce farmers in California, Arizona, and Colorado. So far, the WGCIT has backed 15 startups, some of which have adopted machine learning and deep learning as part of their solutions. Organizations like the WGCIT are also driving research into using machine vision for such applications as grading eggs, refining self-driving farming equipment, and recognizing and killing weeds.
This last use case is particularly important because consumer preference in the developed world is shifting toward organic produce. In the United States alone, sales of organic produce rose 10.6% last year. Although many would say that organic produce makes life better for the consumer, it also makes life harder for the farmer who must become less reliant on pesticide and fertilizer use.
The increasing demand for fresher food in the developed world is also driving the adoption of AI to address food safety. Food producers are being held accountable for outbreaks of food-related diseases. In 2015, food at some Chipotle Mexican Grill restaurants were the cause for two separate outbreaks of E. coli food poisoning. In the first outbreak, 55 people in 11 states were infected by the foodborne illness, of which 21 were hospitalized. The second, smaller outbreak infected five people from three states, of which one was hospitalized. The company was forced to close restaurants, change safety procedures, and work to try to win back public confidence. The changes Chipotle implemented included high-resolution DNA-based testing of many ingredients in its food.
As the price of sensors is coming down, the Internet of Things (IoT) is also emerging as an important driver of AI adoption. In 2013, Monsanto bought the Climate Corporation for $930 million. This business uses remote sensors and AI to determine the underwriting risk of selling insurance to farmers against weather-related losses. Some high-value crops, such as grapes, are already beginning to be remotely monitored, vine by vine. The massive amount of information collected accelerates the trend toward using machine learning and deep learning to make sense of the data.
According to Tractica’s research, agriculture is one of the industries best positioned to leverage artificial intelligence – at least in the developed world. In our Artificial Intelligence for Enterprise Applications report, we forecast that spending on AI software in the agriculture industry will grow from $16.2 million to $373.7 million by 2024.