The transformative power of artificial intelligence (AI) is poised to make a significant impact on one of the world’s oldest and most critical sectors: agriculture. A new study suggests that “edge AI” could revolutionize farming practices, boost productivity, and achieve sustainability goals across the global food chain.

Edge AI involves programming AI algorithms directly on local devices “at the edge” of a network rather than in a centralized data center. This technology has the potential to enhance farming practices by integrating sensors and AI into smart farm vehicles and machines, facilitating precise irrigation and agrochemical application. According to the study, this precision can reduce the use of water, fertilizers, and agrochemicals, advancing sustainability strategies on farms.

Benefits of Edge AI in Agriculture

Edge AI can run on Internet-of-Things (IoT) sensors distributed throughout farm facilities or fields. The benefits of this technology include:

  • Real-time data delivery
  • Faster decision-making
  • Improved network reliability and privacy
  • Better energy efficiency

The study, published in Nature Sustainability, starts with the premise that the world faces a serious food production challenge as the population is projected to reach 9 billion people by 2050. The team of international researchers—including scientists from the U.S., U.K., Australia, Belgium, Germany, and Africa—concluded that edge AI offers a promising solution to improve food resource efficiency in an environmentally friendly manner.

Potential Improvements in Agriculture

The study highlighted several areas where edge AI could make significant improvements:

  • Pest control
  • Nutrient management
  • Plant breeding

One example cited by the researchers is a high-throughput computer vision camera that could quickly categorize plant types for cross-breeding, accelerating the development of weather-resistant crop varieties. “In-field high-throughput plant phenotyping, based mainly on computer vision, has been considered a promising technology to enhance the efficiency and accuracy of assessing crop growth dynamics,” the study noted.

Challenges and Considerations

Despite its potential, the study acknowledged several challenges in deploying edge AI:

  • High-quality data collection
  • Robust algorithms
  • Purpose-built hardware
  • Energy demands

“Edge computing not only needs sharpness in AI models and algorithms but also has a huge dependency on hardware and infrastructure support,” the researchers wrote. “One of the major concerns we are facing today is the lack of energy-efficient computer hardware that could enable edge computing while considering limited resources.”

Societal Implications

The study also noted the societal implications of using edge AI in farming. While the technology could increase global food production and reduce resource waste, there are concerns about widening the digital divide between developed and developing regions. The authors called for policies to ensure equitable access to these technologies and stressed the importance of involving farmers in the design and implementation process.

The lead researcher did not respond to a request for comment from Decrypt.

In summary, edge AI holds the promise of transforming agriculture by making it more efficient and sustainable, but overcoming technical and societal challenges will be crucial for its successful implementation.

By Impact Lab