Alphabet Moonshot Arm X Wants to Apply AI to Farming

March 27, 2018

fortune.com
Jonathan Vanian

The research lab of Google parent Alphabet is studying how to apply artificial intelligence technologies to improve farming.

Astro Teller, the head of the research lab, known as X, said that his staff is “spending more time with farmers” to better learn how cutting-edge technology can help improve crop yields.

He didn’t say that X is close to creating an agricultural moonshot, a term X uses to describe it’s research initiatives like Project Loon that is focused on using giant balloons to deliver the Internet to the ground. But he explained that X is now willing to “place more bets” on farm tech based on its preliminary research, which he did not reveal.

Teller, speaking Tuesday at MIT Technology Review’s EmTech Digital conference in San Francisco, gave the example of tomato farmers who can recognize whether a tomato is ripe or has a mold that could infect nearby plants, but who “cannot walk a thousand acres a day.” Instead, he mused about using drones or robots to do the job.

Teller also outlined a scenario in which farmers could use machine-learning technologies to predict when pests like locusts, even though hundreds of miles away, could arrive and destroy a crop. It would alert farmers to grow decoy crops in enough time to lure the insects away from their crown jewel harvests, he explained.

One thing that X will not pursue is vertical farming that involves building large buildings as greenhouses to grow crops. Teller said that X previously explored vertical farming, but decided against it, partly because only a limited number of crops—none of which are staples crops like potatoes or corn—can grow in those environments.