“AI strawberries” are just the beginning for remaking agriculture

Pinduoduo's Smart Agri Competition is exploring how artificial intelligence could replace low-value manual labor, especially in countries where the farming workforce is dwindling and aging.

Agriculture could benefit disproportionately from artificial intelligence to replace low-value manual labor, especially in countries where the farming workforce is dwindling and aging.

At the inaugural Smart Agriculture Competition organized by Pinduoduo, China's largest agricultural e-commerce platform, teams of data scientists are applying AI algorithms to grow strawberries remotely in automated greenhouses. They are competing against traditional farmers to see who can deliver the most economic benefit from their assigned plots in a classic human-vs-machine contest.

For Fulco Wijdooge, a member of the judging panel, the impact is already clear even though the competition runs until November. The application of AI has the potential to transform agriculture at a time when the industry is facing a shortage of skilled growers.

"If you can do this, you can scale it up, and you can implement this in whatever setup you have," said Wijdooge, who is also the general manager for Asia at Ridder Group, which is supplying the greenhouse technology for the competition. Technology is a "big help for the industry because we have a lack of skilled labor, skilled growers" and "AI can make a difference in increasing the yield and quality of the crop."

Wijdooge was speaking in an interview at the competition about an hour's drive from Kunming, the provincial capital of Yunnan. He was there to inspect the progress of the teams, who have until November to prove who will come out on top.

Over the competition, teams of data scientists will compete with master growers to see who can derive the most economic benefit from their designated strawberry plots. The technology teams will remotely grow strawberries in digital and automated greenhouses. They will formulate and optimize AI solutions based on growth data and greenhouse conditions gleaned from IoT devices, cameras, and sensors.

The traditional teams, on the other hand, will rely on their collective experience in planting and skills in agricultural management to upgrade smallholder production and challenge the AI systems developed by their counterparts.

Pinduoduo organized the competition jointly with the China Agricultural University with the technical guidance of the Food and Agriculture Organization. The e-commerce platform has made it a strategic priority to digitize agriculture so that the efficiency gains can be shared with farmers and consumers.

The competition has attracted interest from nearly 40 teams worldwide, including from top agricultural universities of the Netherlands and China. The winner will be evaluated on the practical economic benefit they bring and the technical merit of the growing techniques.

"Through this Smart Agriculture Competition, we hope to showcase the potential economic benefits achievable from integrating advanced information technology with traditional agriculture best practices," said David Liu, Vice President of Strategy at Pinduoduo. "This is the beginning of a long-term exploration and collaboration. We hope to spread the word about the outcomes of this competition and bring about real economic benefits to agricultural producers."

China's agriculture system comes with some unique challenges that AI can potentially alleviate.

About one in four of China's workforce is involved in agriculture but the industry makes up less than 10% of its GDP. The rural workforce is aging and in decline as young people move to work in the cities. Food production remains mostly unplanned and uncoordinated, dogged by quality and safety issues, and spread over mostly small-scale farms. There is also significant wastage along the distribution chain.

Agriculture analytics can help advise farmers on what to plant and when to harvest by considering historical and projected information. Precision farming using robotics, IoT sensors, greenhouse technology can help minimize the use of labor, better control for diseases, and cut production costs.

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