Researcher teams led by employees at Microsoft, Intel, and Tencent are participating in a cucumber-growing competition to operate autonomous greenhouses to explore artificial intelligence applications in indoor farming.
The Autonomous Greenhouse Challenge competition at Wageningen University in the Netherlands started in September and wraps up in December. Alongside corporate tech giants, the project includes a control group of horticulture professionals from the Netherlands who are using methods typically employed in greenhouses today.
According to Silke Hemming, the researcher overseeing the competition, as of October 23, Microsoft Research leads in net profit for its greenhouse, followed by Tencent and a team from Wageningen University.
“The artificial intelligence is now performing better than the human intelligence. This is there in terms of net profit,” researcher Isabella Righini told VentureBeat in a phone interview.
Teams using AI to drive their decisions created their models using cucumber growing datasets provided by the university.
Wageningen University staff enter the greenhouse to do things like remove cucumbers or cut leaves, but an algorithm informed by sensors controls about 20 inputs, such as roof ventilation, artificial lighting, and heating, that affect plant growth.
Conclusions from the contest, which is overseen and judged by horticulture staff at Wageningen, will be shared with the public in December.
A jury primarily made up of Wageningen University research staff will choose winners based on their resource efficiency, the robustness of their AI model, and the sustainability of methods they use to grow cucumbers.
Cucumbers were chosen as the test crop because of the amount of existing modeling data and know-how available, Hemming said.
“This isn’t about snipping the cucumber off the vine and then putting it in the plastic bag or something … the entire greenhouse is like a robot, so it should be fully autonomous. The sensors are there, then the AI and intelligence is directing the actuators in real time how much nutrition to deliver. Do they play with lighting? Do they play with gases? And so on and so forth,” Tencent chief exploration officer David Wallerstein told VentureBeat in a phone interview.
The competition is funded by the Tencent Exploration Team, which makes investments in promising startups and those working to solve global problems. Established in 2014, the team has invested in startups like Alt School and outdoor farming startup Phytech, as well as companies like Snapchat, Tile, and Andy Rubin‘s Essential.
Tencent wants to explore opportunities for indoor and outdoor farming to find out how AI can drive food productivity levels globally. The planet is expected to have a population of 8.5 billion by 2030, according to the United Nations.
In time, the Exploration Team wants to see if cloud computing and continuously learning AI in sustained environments like the kinds used for indoor farming can change the way people around the world get food.
The initiative to explore technologies like indoor farming aims to develop methods that can be applied in nearly every circumstance and that may require less water, have a smaller carbon footprint, and use less land. Better crop yield should be a global priority, not just a potential business opportunity, Wallerstein said.
Urban farming initiatives have varied over the years, from vertical farming companies like Sky Greens to subterranean initiatives like Growing Underground, a company using a World War II bunker under London to grow food.
“I think the opportunity we see is for kind of a decentralization of global agriculture and moving agricultural productivity or growth potential closer to cities and into cities,” he said. “There’s all kinds of ways that we can reimagine how certain spaces are used and how we source our food. And we think it’s an important opportunity for humanity to diversify its food resources, as well as ensuring we’re eating healthier diets.”
Tencent isn’t alone in wanting to use AI to feed more people.
Microsoft launched a $50 million AI for Earth initiative in December 2017 to support applications of AI to combat climate change, protect endangered species, and increase crop yields.