By Sam Watson Jones - Co-Founder at Small Robot Company
The widespread use of Artificial Intelligence (AI) in broadacre arable farming will be the most significant transformation to the arable industry since the adoption of the tractor. The tractor was a transformational piece of technology, and it changed farming forever and a similar transformation will happen in the wake of AI, both to what happens on farm and to what happens throughout the food supply chain. When you drive through the countryside today, you see big open fields, normally with a single crop (a monoculture) being grown in each field - this will change completely in the future as a result of AI becoming a mainstream technology in farming.
Part of the change we will see will be enabled by new hardware and software, as small autonomous robots replace much of the work done by big tractors and human beings, but these will largely be superficial changes. The biggest transformation will be in the way that the people who manage farmland take decisions. The switch from a decision making system which relies on individually accumulated knowledge and experience will be replaced by layered, data-driven decisions. It will lead to exponential gains for farm businesses and for the planet and it is a large part of the reason that I repeatedly say that today is the best time there has ever been to be a farmer.
Early on in my farming career, I got talking to an experienced farmer at a wedding. This farmer was running one the largest farming operations in Shropshire (the Midlands (UK) county where I grew up and where my family farm is still thriving today). I was asking the farmer about how he took decisions.
“It takes you at least 15 years before you really know the answer,” the farmer said. “After about 5 years, you think you have the right answers, but it is only after 15 years or so that you really know.”
I’ve heard similar sentiments expressed many times in conversations with farmers. There is understandable pride in being the one who knows all of the answers all of the time. But in the future, the best farmers will not be those who know the right answers, they will be those who can ask the best questions.
Decision making in farming is so complex that there has always been a temptation to simplify it wherever possible. Whether we are going to make a profit on the wheat that we are just about to drill is based on numerous factors - seed spacing, seed depth and variety choice based on soil type and soil moisture, operational timeliness throughout the season, disease pressure, pest pressure, weather at the crucial parts of the growing season, storage conditions, global market movements and so on. This is far from a complete list. What is clear is that, at the moment, so many of the above factors are so far beyond the control of the farmer that we rarely consider them, preferring instead to trust to our own experience and knowledge.
But our own experience and knowledge is such a narrow slice of the vast array of knowledge that could be available to us, and will be made available to us by Artificial Intelligence. There’s a vast array of data already out there in the world that we just ignore, because it is too complex for us to process as human beings. We never know what the best decision is - we are guessing and hoping. Sometimes we are proved right by hindsight, and sometimes not.
This is what AI will change.
What if we could consider all of the above factors and more when we were deciding when to cultivate, when to plant, when to spray, when to harvest? What if we could make an assessment of the likely profitability of the crop before we planted it? What if we could make a data driven decision about whether it was worth planting it at all? What would the impact be on our businesses as farmers and on the environment?
I have no doubt that that farmer I was speaking to at the wedding was, and still is, an excellent farmer, measured by today’s yardsticks. However, the skills that lead to success in the future will be different to those that led to success in the past. The best farmers in the future will be those who embrace new technologies and new ways of working. Central to that will be developing the ability to ask really good questions.
When you consider this as a thesis, remember that we already live in a world in which there is more knowledge freely available than at any time previously in human history. Our success at accessing this knowledge already largely relies on our ability to interact with AI machines, to formulate the right questions for Google, Siri or Alexa. My wife informs me that I still have quite a long way to go before I am an effective user of these technologies! Likewise, when we talk about AI in farming, it is important that we realise that we are not talking about a future world which is waiting to be invented - we are talking about existing technologies whose influence is set to expand. Farming is living at through a convergence of world changing technologies, and it is set to benefit massively.
Sometimes when I talk to farmers about the huge transformation that these new technologies have the potential to create in their industry, their first instinct is fear. As a result, when thinking about the implications for their businesses. they can revert to thinking about the parts of their business that they can protect in this scary vision of the future. This is entirely understandable, and it’s not even necessarily strategically wrong - there may well be parts of their existing business that have more value in the future than they do today, and therefore the right strategy is to double down on this area. For example, in a world in which we have the ability to be constantly connected to learning machines, offering experiences in beautiful rural settings which provide a sanctuary from this may be something that customers would be willing to pay for.
However, I think that it is ultimately a mistake for industries to adopt a protective mindset when faced with technological transformation. Change is inevitable, and if we can cultivate a mindset which is fascinated and excited by this change, we have a much greater chance of capturing the vast swathes of new opportunities which will present themselves in this new, better version of farming and food production.