Most technology enthusiasts these days will mention automation using artificial intelligence (AI) as a key factor in the future of computing. The computing community is promoting AI as a one-stop solution to every complex problem. Technology companies are introducing AI-enabled products in many domains such as automotive, consumer electronics, healthcare, social media, and finance. Based on some recent studies, AI is expected to contribute 16 percent or $13 trillion to the global economy by 2030.
There is much hype around AI and its potential in transforming society through automation. But hype is not good enough when dealing with major issues that affect all humanity. For example, population growth is affecting our climate and, in turn, crop yields. Food security is exacerbated as growing populations crowd out farmland. Feeding an ever-growing population remains a top challenge for countries across the globe.
Almost a decade ago, Bill Gates made a very important statement about enabling farmers and increasing yields. He said: “Three quarters of the world’s poorest people get their food and income by farming small plots of land, so if we can make smallholder farming more productive and more profitable, we can have a massive impact on hunger and nutrition and poverty” . Gates thereby endorsed the urgent need for a green revolution 2.0, particularly in African countries, through farmer training, better infrastructure, and most importantly genetic engineering .
The studies suggest approximately 500 million small and family farms contribute to 80 percent of the global food supply [2, 3, 4]. Small farmers continue to face several challenges including unpredictable climate, crop growth, and pressures on farmland from urbanization. Moreover, to feed the ever-increasing population that is expected to exceed nine billion by 2050, food production needs to increase by 60 percent [2, 5]. It is evident for improvements in farm conditions and food production growth to occur there needs to be significant technology support.
Furthermore, today roughly 11 percent of the total land on this globe (13.4 billion hectare) is used for agriculture. However, there is still a potential to expand land surface for agriculture by 2.7 billion hectares. The expansion of land for agriculture can be achieved with better crop planning and more accurate understanding of weather, soil, and water table.
Artificial Intelligence (AI) is gaining widespread popularity in solving these complex problems. Agriculture is one of the best areas in which AI-based techniques can significantly provide important information and predictions on crop rotation, soil health, pests detection, and rainfall. It can also empower farmers with information on market requirements, quality, and possibilities of exporting produce and importing seeds. Although the first green revolution helped fight food scarcity, its reach was limited and its impact on public health and the environment is still controversial because of the chemicals used in farming.
With AI sparking agricultural innovation, there is a lot of hope that the agriculture industry will benefit from not just improving crop productivity, but also enabling farmers to improve their living conditions. This is particularly true for small landowners. With the help of information on government policies and the demand for products, markets, and prices, farmers can reach the right places for selling their produce and get better prices.
Many countries are leading the path by developing policies and collaborations with industry to introduce AI-based techniques to farmers and motivate them to use AI-generated information for improving their farming practices. For example, NatureFresh Farms, a vegetable growing company, developed image processing techniques that zoom on the yellow flower of a tomato seedling to predict the exact time for tomatoes to become ripe and ready for packing. Information on when and how many tomatoes will be available to sell in the future can help growers improve their sales and directly benefit the bottom line.
Microsoft, in collaboration with the International Crop Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT), developed an AI sowing application. The app sends sowing advisories to participating farmers, advising them of optimal sowing dates. The farmers do not need to install sensors in their fields or buy special equipment. All they need is a phone capable of receiving text messages. With this information, many farmers in the Kurnool district of Andhra Pradesh in India increased crop yield by an average of 30 percent per hectare in 2016.
Besides the potential of AI, we also need to acknowledge the need for other technologies, such as cyber-physical systems, Internet-of-Things (IoT), and cloud computing, which provide essential support in collecting massive data and its processing so that AI-based algorithms can be employed to make necessary predictions. In addition to data collection and its processing, IoT technologies can provide significant innovation in agriculture methods. For instance, livestock sensors can notify ranchers when animals have roamed from the herd so ranch hands can round them up. Soil sensors can alert farmers to irregular conditions, like high acidity, giving the farmer time to correct the balance and produce better crops. Self-driving tractors can be controlled remotely, providing significant savings in labor costs. Based on current trends, agriculture IoT device installations are likely to hit 75 million by 2020, growing 20 percent annually. Owing to such technology developments, the global smart agriculture market size is expected to triple by 2025, reaching $15.3 billion compared to being slightly more than $5 billion back in 2016.
These are just few examples to emphasize the tremendous benefits available from tapping AI and other related technologies to improve the world’s agriculture. Currently, computing industry leaders like Microsoft, Intel, and IBM are taking leading roles in providing innovation in the agriculture industry using AI. The time is ripe for more and more start-ups and mid-size companies to start exploring AI in agriculture. As they do so, they will hasten the pace of the green revolution 2.0, securing the ability of the world’s agriculture to feed humanity and keep small famers in business.
 Antony, A. P., Lu, J., and Sweeney, D. Seeds of silicon: Internet of things for smallholder agriculture. Comprehensive Initiative on Technology Evaluation. Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 2019.
 FAO and IFAD. United Nations Decade of Family Farming 2019-2028. The future of family farming in the context of the 2030 agenda. Rome. 2019.
 Graeub et al. The state of family farms in the world. World Development 87 (2016), 1-15.
 Searchinger et al. Creating a sustainable food future: A menu of solutions to feed nearly 10 billion people by 2050 (Synthesis Report). World Resources Institute, 2018. ISBN 978-1-56973-953-6.