Can artificial intelligence grow better strawberries?

Can artificial intelligence grow better strawberries?

Staff Writer
Staff Writer
Pinduoduo Content Team
July 27, 2020

· Smart Agriculture Competition organized by Pinduoduo and China Agricultural University kicks off in Yunnan

· Top teams of AI experts and master growers compete to see who can develop best solutions to improve agricultural productivity

Ji Rongxi and his team of expert growers arrived in Kunming for the finals of a strawberry-cultivation competition, armed with years of experience between them, a big sack of compost, and shovels. His rivals came with laptops and artificial intelligence algorithms.

In what’s been billed as an agricultural version of the Google DeepMind Challenge Match, four teams of top strawberry growers — the “Traditional Teams” — will take on four teams of top scientific and AI experts — the “Science and Technology Teams” — to see whether humans or algorithms are better at growing the sweet, vitamin C-rich fruit.

The inaugural Duo Duo Smart Agriculture Competition, organized jointly by the China Agricultural University and Pinduoduo (PDD), is being held with the aim of developing planting methods that are best suited for the conditions, using either advanced AI technologies or horticultural know-how.

Inside the greenhouse venue for the Smart Agriculture Competition in Yunnan.

The winners of the challenge will be determined by the economic value created, as well as the reliability, scalability and technical merit of the agritech solutions deployed. They will receive research funding, implementation support at a Duo Duo Farm in Yunnan, and academic and commercial support from PDD.

Held under the technical guidance of the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations, this is the first cross-disciplinary smart agriculture competition in China organized by a technology company and university.

“30 years from now, farming labor will become increasingly scarce, which makes unmanned farms and related technological breakthrough all the more important,” said Li Daoliang, a professor at China Agricultural University.

A contestant looking at code on his laptop.

Over the course of the competition, the Science and Technology Teams will remotely grow strawberries in digital and unmanned greenhouses. They will formulate and optimize AI solutions, based on growth data and greenhouse conditions gleamed from IoT devices, cameras and sensors. The aim is to achieve unmanned strawberry production that combines quality and efficiency.

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

One team made up of automation, agronomy and engineering experts from universities and institutes in Yunnan province plans to deploy near-infrared spectroscopy to help grow their strawberries. The technology is used in agriculture to quantify crop parameters such as water content, sugar content and other indicators of ripeness, measure the need for nitrogen-based fertilizers, or to look for bruising not visible to the human eye.

“In real-life agriculture, as long as you can help farmers solve a small practical problem, it will have a big impact in terms of lifting the quality and quantity of production,” said Cheng Biao, the team leader.

Another of the technology teams, led by Ni Jun, a professor at Nanjing Agricultural University, said they will use sensors that can reduce water use by 70%, fertilizer by 50%, resulting in savings in both input costs and labor.

Preparing the strawberry beds before the competition.

Despite the stiff competition, Ji, the strawberry grower, says that technology is the way forward for farming.

At his greenhouse laboratory back in Zhenjiang, Ji has installed supplementary lighting and heating, as well as humidity sensors, to monitor his crops and maintain the optimal conditions for growth.

“I may not grow strawberries anymore when I hit 60, then who will grow them, how to grow them? If AI can learn the decades of growing experience, that is the best outcome,” he said.

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