Op-ed: Putting the "AI" in Thai agriculture

published:

agriculture robot

Author: Sutapa Amornvivat, Ph.D.
Published in Bangkok Post newspaper/ In Ponderland column 20 July 2018

Last month at the SingularityU Summit, I was exposed to some of the latest and most exciting technologies across various sectors. Of particular interest to me were the technological developments within the agricultural sector — an industry so vital for Thailand.

How can artificial intelligence (AI) be leveraged in agriculture? And more importantly, how can Thailand benefit from these advancements?

Agriculture has always been one of the core economic activities in Thailand, with over 40% of Thai workers employed in the industry according to the National Statistics Office. Yet, this sector contributes only 10% of GDP, and is in decline. Furthermore, mechanisation for harvesting, processing or irrigation requires investment and has been sparsely adopted by Thai farmers.

But with the changing technological landscape today, perhaps we can be more optimistic. The cost of technology has dropped drastically while productivity gains from adoption have risen. The agricultural sector could leverage new trends like AI, that surpass the previous linear evolution of mechanisation. Combined with the abundance of local wisdom, AI can play a part in producing more precise farming that leads to exponential agricultural growth.

To make this a commercial success, a holistic approach must be considered. Firstly, new technology should be applied to improve efficiency in agricultural production. This is the most obvious use of AI for agriculture — to make farmers more productive, and the business less labour-intensive. Some of the AI and Internet of Things (IoT) technologies are already being successfully utilised in developed nations. For instance, an agriculture drone presents an effective method for collecting data from an aerial perspective. When equipped with software programs, it can analyse data for potential improvement in crop yields and farming efficiency. These AI tools can also be applied to livestock. In the case of “Cow Fitbits”, AI can learn behavioural patterns in order for farmers to better cater to animals’ wellbeing.

Beyond efficiency gains, AI systems can help safeguard agricultural activities against various risks. Many technologies now offer precision farming solutions that control unpredictable situations such as pests and diseases. One start-up called Blue River Technology helps farmers detect weeds by deploying drone-based phenotyping technology to identify which plants do not belong in the field. In addition, farmers can also choose to mitigate risks by purchasing agricultural insurance that is underwritten using AI and big data, to allow for a better cost structure and secure the necessary funds should unexpected events occur. Lastly, with the prevalence of internet and social media usage, communities around the world are becoming more connected. Shared digital platforms allow farmers from around the globe to exchange knowledge and best practices. Aggregator platforms like Aggrigator, where farmers are constantly synced with market clearing prices, can help to identify niche demand in real-time. Social media also allows for more fruitful rural-urban interaction which will, in turn, foster new innovative business models.

How do we go about implementing this in Thailand, exactly?

A key element to successful adoption is to foster an innovation ecosystem within the industry. The trend of urbanisation has resulted in much of the younger demographic migrating to the cities in hopes of better prospects. Successful modernisation through technology will require the right talent. Unfortunately for many, agriculture is not perceived as lucrative or attractive.

But now the tide is shifting. We are starting to see a new generation with an entrepreneurial mindset returning to their families’ farms or starting anew. Stronger networks will also help: Over the past four years, more than 7,000 young individuals have joined the Young Smart Farmer programme under the supervision of the Ministry of Agriculture and Agricultural Cooperatives. The programme is expected to attract an additional 6,000 this year alone. More initiatives like these are emerging and, when coupled with network effects, can lead to more talent re-entering this industry.

This new generation has already brought novelties to their farming practices and channel of sales, experimenting with irrigation technology and Facebook advertising. Thai startups have also entered the agriculture space to help farmers connect with technology. For example, Ricult, co-founded by a young Thai entrepreneur, has developed a satellite imaging solution to assist farmers in planning crop rotations. These innovators would certainly be more open to embracing AI and champion this sector.

Successful implementation of agricultural transformation will depend heavily on the support and commitment of the public sector. A state-level agricultural transformation will be extremely costly with many trade-offs; therefore it is important that decisions should not be dictated by politics but guided by evidence and data.

Indeed, the government has an active role to play in creating a data-driven environment. A centralised agricultural data platform will allow AI tools to be deployed. This data platform should systematically collect and continue to update farming data such as crop seasonality, pest issues, soil conditions, weather forecasts as well as local knowledge across areas and crop types. The government should take the initiative not only in creating the centralised platform, but also in playing a field agent role to collect agricultural data and accumulate industry knowledge. This will allow technology providers to access readily available data and offer localised services to farmers more cheaply.

Without a doubt, this will be a huge investment from the government, requiring strong leadership and vision from the top. Indeed, applying AI in agriculture is a long-term game that will involve sub-par growth initially and many uncertainties. On the bright side, the advanced technologies that will uplift our agriculture sector already exist and are in use around the world. The real challenge now is to align our priorities and maximise our readiness to successfully adopt these technologies.

Financial services, telecoms and manufacturing are currently leading in the AI race. Thai society cannot afford to leave behind one of our most crucial and socially impacted industries: agriculture.

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