Smart farmers

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‘AI must outperform growers’ green fingers’

Top executive David Wallerstein from the Chinese technology company, Tencent, has recently discovered horticulture. He believes combining Artificial Intelligence (AI) and food production will make it possible to unlock enormous potential.

The CEO of Tencent is Ma Huateng, better known as Pony Ma. But David Wallerstein, an American, is also a kind of CEO at the tech giant – Chief Exploration Officer. Officially, he is Senior Executive Vice President of the Chinese company.

With a stock exchange value of $ 523 billion (€ 429 billion), Tencent became one of the top 5 largest tech companies in the world in autumn last year, behind Apple, Google, Microsoft and Amazon, but just ahead of Facebook. Recently, Mr Wallerstein’s thirst for exploration has lighted upon agriculture and horticulture and in particular on the Autonomous Greenhouse.

Using AI to run a greenhouse autonomously

Mr Wallerstein believes that combining AI with a food production system that is as efficient as possible is “a moral imperative and simply good business”. “What we want for humanity is as many solutions as possible for the issue of food security. Our only option is to commit our brightest talents to creating a food production system that requires decreasing levels of input to achieve an ever-increasing output.”

Will Dutch growers become redundant if the Autonomous Greenhouse challenge is a success?

“Absolutely not. This competition to find the best autonomous cultivation system is intended as a learning opportunity for everyone who participates. Learning how the latest computer technology and AI technology can benefit horticulture and — in practical terms — the entire world population. Complementing the cultivation techniques that we already have. The only people who need to worry are the ones who want to keep using a particular method simply because they have always done it that way.”

‘The complexity of decision making in modern horticulture is growing with the amount of data that is becoming available to growers’

At what stage will this project be deemed a success?

“The winning team will have to overcome two hurdles: it must outperform the other teams with a higher production when compared to the input, and – ideally – it must also defeat traditional cultivation methods. Only then will this definitely be the most convincing business model. And why not?”

“The complexity of decision making in modern horticulture is growing with the amount of data that is becoming available to growers. What I’m hoping the outcome of this project will be is that the competing teams will find new types of patterns and ways of introducing variables to each other.”

Hacking the environment around the plant

According to Mr Wallerstein, what the teams who are looking for a self-governing and self-learning cultivation system are actually going to be doing is “hacking the environment around the plant.” Well-programmed computers may well be able to analyse and control the bigger picture of which raw materials and resources are required, and what conditions have to be influenced and how, to achieve the best possible cultivation results in a different and more effective way than growers are able to do using their green fingers and intuition.

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David Wallerstein, American, is a kind of CEO – Chief Exploration Officer – at Tencent, a Chinese tech giant. Officially, he is Senior Executive Vice President. Recently, Wallerstein’s thirst for exploration has lighted upon agriculture and horticulture and in particular on the Autonomous Greenhouse. - Photo: Koen Verheijden
David Wallerstein, American, is a kind of CEO – Chief Exploration Officer – at Tencent, a Chinese tech giant. Officially, he is Senior Executive Vice President. Recently, Wallerstein’s thirst for exploration has lighted upon agriculture and horticulture and in particular on the Autonomous Greenhouse. - Photo: Koen Verheijden

Droughts and soil erosion

“I foresee a big future for distributed agriculture; in other words, no more increasingly large companies that use a few central locations to produce the food for an entire country or continent. That is still how they do things in the US. Three-quarters or more of the fruit and vegetables eaten by Americans are grown in the Central Valley in California. But growers there are facing worsening droughts and soil erosion, and extreme weather caused by climate change is making this kind of cultivation more and more risky.”

So, each town would have its own autonomous greenhouse?

“Exactly. Food produced closer to consumers. Maybe even an autonomous greenhouse for each household. Just like the decentralised generation of energy from the sun with solar panels on residents’ roofs.”

‘Plenty of companies in Silicon Valley are involved in applying AI to marketing and advertising, but I couldn’t find any looking at AI in food production’

What role can Tencent play in developing this kind of new approach to cultivating vegetables?

“We aren’t planning to move everything to China. We are new in Europe, but we really want to come and do business here. So that even more companies want to work in our cloud and use our payment systems. We are looking forward to partnering in projects that help the world to move forwards, such as discovering more effective pharmaceutical products or better materials, or ways in which the cloud and AI can have a positive impact on the everyday lives of all the billions of people on our planet. Plenty of companies in Silicon Valley are involved in applying AI to marketing and advertising, but I couldn’t find any looking at AI in food production. So, I kept searching and found the Autonomous Greenhouse challenge at Wageningen.”

‘I also believe in applying the hacker mentality. Let’s get our hands dirty’

Why Wageningen? After all, there are so many Chinese and American universities to choose from.

“Wageningen is number one in the world. And the Netherlands already has plenty of companies working in horticulture around the world. I‘ve also visited greenhouses in Iceland, all of them using Dutch technology, I’m told. So, if there is anywhere that is a breeding ground for the idea of developing and designing a greenhouse that is largely self-governing, and is capable of utilising this reduced input to increase production, then that place is here.”

And that is something that companies have been working on for years already. Can this competition suddenly accelerate that process?

“It’s down to us at Tencent and at Wageningen University & Research to make the world aware that we are looking for an autonomous greenhouse. I have the utmost confidence in what talent can achieve. If we can find the best talents and teams in the world, and if they can perfect their algorithms, then we can learn a huge amount from this process. Of course, it makes good business sense to want to develop new technology in-house, and to bring this to the market ourselves, but I also believe in applying the hacker mentality. Let’s get our hands dirty.”

Ton van der Scheer

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