Here’s why Artificial Intelligence is the most important development agriculture has ever seen

The next horizon is approaching for farming. Either farmers adopt Artificial Intelligence over the next 10 years or they risk going out of business

A vision for 2030

Over the next decade, there will be two types of farms. There will be those that have embraced AI and gradually increased its usage to the point at which some sort of AI is involved in every operational decision they make, and there will be those that have ignored it and are on the way to going out of business.

I really do not think that is overstating it.

By 2030, you, the farmer, will have changed the way you interact with the machines on your farms. At this point it will be appropriate to think of the small, smart machines gathering data and taking action at the per plant level in your fields as individual AIs. As you begin to trust these new technologies you will begin to broaden the parameters within which the machines work. Rather than machines being programmed to carry out a very specific task, such as autonomously planting a specific field at 140kg of seed per hectare or identifying every weed in a field, you will be able to start asking broader questions.

By 2030, there will be an additional layer of AI between the farmer and the in-field machines. This will be an AI that you talk to via your computer (or another interface) as though it were a human being. You will interact with the computer verbally and you will be able to have a discussion with it like you would your most trusted farm advisor. This interactive “in-office” AI will be the gateway through which you decide on the actions that your “in-field” AIs are going to take. Questions that you could ask your AI in 2030 might include:

  • If I want to optimise the balance between profitability and biodiversity on my farm next year, what are the right crops to grow and where?
  • What are the right crops to grow to supply the most rapidly growing food markets in the next 2 years?

To be clear, at no point am I suggesting that this 2030 AI will have anything approaching human intelligence. Ask for its input on anything outside the relatively narrow world of arable farming and it will be entirely useless. But it will be highly knowledgeable about your farm and about best practice in the farming industry. It will also become highly knowledgeable about you as a farmer — your risk tolerance and your goals for the business.

In fact, goal setting and vision is going to become one of the most important skills for a farmer in 2030 and beyond. Getting really clear about your vision for the future for yourself and for your farm will always be a human task, and the best users of these new AI driven tools will be those who know exactly where they are going. One of the consequences of the machinery led, 3rd Agricultural Revolution is that it has led to farmers becoming heads-down operators of machinery. In the 4th Agricultural Revolution, AI will empower farmers so that they have the opportunity to become heads-up leaders of businesses.

We will also see a blurring of the lines between the digital and physical worlds. Wearable augmented reality technologies will help you to gather, interpret and interact with data on every aspect of your farm, from crops, to livestock, to machinery and buildings. Lame sheep will be flagged up to you as you walk into a field. Crops at risk of pests and disease because of a detected outbreak 50 miles down the road will be highlighted to you, and the appropriate action suggested as you go about your normal day. Machines will not only flag up to you, ahead of time, that they have parts that need replacing — they will automatically order the parts for you and notify you when they turn up on the farm.

All of these are differences that you will notice directly on your farm — but the biggest change is yet to come. As AI powered machines become the mainstream technology, the super power that Artificial Intelligence will give to the farmer is that not only is this AI learning from the decisions taken on your farm, it is also learning from all of the decisions taken on all of the farms in the network. AI will enable every farm to learn from every other farm. It will break down the fragmentation and isolation that exists in the industry today and rapidly accelerate the progress that we are able to make as a result, with huge positive consequences for the environment and the planet.

Farmers today are fond of saying that they only have about 40 harvests to learn about their farm, what the right decisions are and when to take them.

What if the farmers of the future effectively had the cumulative experience of 40 million harvests behind them with every decision? Where would you take your farm business if you had that level of experience? What questions will you ask your AI to help you get there?

As I said at the top, how you use Artificial Intelligence will become an existential question for farming businesses over the next decade — it will not be something that farmers can choose to opt into, it will become a necessity. The time to start thinking about how you want these technologies to drive you business forward is not ten years hence — it is now.

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