Alphabet's X lab — formerly a division of Google, where it launched the self-driving car called Waymo — has debuted its newest dream project — a gigantic computational agriculture project called Mineral, according to a recent blog post from the company.
Alphabet's X lab unveils crop-huffing plant buggy 'Mineral'
The new project emphasizes scaled-up sustainable food production and farming, focusing on "developing and testing a range of software and hardware prototypes based on breakthroughs in artificial intelligence, simulation, sensors, robotics, and more," said Elliott Grant, project lead at Alphabet, The Verge reports.
The project aims to build technology toward meeting sustainability goals. These include producing crops with greater efficiency via the study of weather patterns and growth cycles, and feeding the surging population of Earth. Additionally, the project will manage land and monitor plant life as the climate crisis continues to exacerbate already-strained ecosystems.
"To feed the planet's growing population, global agriculture will need to produce more food in the next 50 years than in the previous 10,000 — at a time when climate change is making our crops less productive," reads the blog post on the new Mineral website.
Plowing new depths of complexity in the plant world
"Just as the microscope led a transformation in how diseases are detected and managed, we hope that better tools will enable the agriculture industry to transform how food is grown," said Grant, reports The Verge.
"Over the last few years my team and I have been developing the tools of what we call computational agriculture, in which farmers, breeders, agronomists, and scientists will lean on new types of hardware, software, and sensors to collect and analyze information about the complexity of the plant world," added Grant.
Mineral team combines data with satellite imagery, weather data
One of the tools is a novel four-wheel rover-looking prototype. The Mineral team calls it a plant buggy, and it studies soil, crops, and additional environmental forces via a mix of sensors, cameras, and miscellaneous equipment.
The team then analyzes and synthesizes the data with satellite imagery and weather data, to generate models capable of predicting how plants will grow. This is done with machine learning, along with various other forms of AI training techniques.
The team at Mineral claims it's already working with prototypes to study strawberries in California and soybeans in Illinois.
"Over the past few years, the plant buggy has trundled through strawberry fields in California and soybean fields in Illinois, gathering high quality images to each plant and counting and classifying every berry and every bean," reads the blog post on Mineral's website. "To date, the team has analyzed a range of crops like melons, berries, lettuce, oats, and barley — from sprout to harvest."
Leveraging AI to work sustainable solutions into agriculture
Grant also notes how the Mineral team will work with plant growers, breeders, farmers, in addition to other experts of the agricultural persuasion to find new ideas with practical benefits.
"What if every single plant could be monitored and given exactly the nutrition it needed? What if we could untangle the genetic and environmental drivers of crop yield?" wrote Grant, about Mineral's long-term aims. "What if we could measure the subtle ways a plant responds to its environment? What if we could match a crop variety to a parcel of land for optimum sustainability? We knew we couldn't ask and answer every question — and thanks to our partners, we haven't needed to. Breeders and growers around the world have worked with us to run experiments to find new ways to understand the plant world."
As new policies emerge in the U.S. and abroad surrounding the concept of resilient cities, and the automation of plants in Tesla and elsewhere carry on — we should expect robots mounted with AI to pop up across the countryside. For the moment, they are working to manage and analyze the effects of the climate crisis, but perhaps one day all farms will run completely autonomously, with not a single human in sight.