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Vertically Urban and Microsoft plot growth of AI Partnership
FEED THE WORLD
With the world’s population set to rise to around 9.8 billion by 2050, it is thought that global food production must increase by around 70% to ensure food stays on everybody’s table. At the same time, we are already losing traditional farmland at an alarming rate mostly because of pollution and climate change.
UK based Agri-tech manufacturer Vertically Urban and global tech leader Microsoft both believe that Controlled Environment Agriculture (CEA), not only has the power to play a pivotal role in ensuring food security for future generations but believe they can bring about significant improvements in the efficiency and quality of the process.
DEVELOPING HORISS WITH MICROSOFT AI
The two companies are working together to develop Vertically Urban’s AI-based CEA control platform HORISS. The aim of HORISS is for it to be an intelligent control system that autonomously monitors and reacts to environmental and physical changes within the growing area, ensuring crops are grown to exact specification, using precisely the resources required.
Andrew Littler, Vertically Urban’s CEO, sat down with Jens Hansen, General Manager (EMEA) of Data & AI at Microsoft, to discuss Microsoft’s partnership with Vertically Urban and how AI has the power to accelerate the new farming revolution in controlled environment agriculture and secure adequate food supplies for future generations.
AL: Thanks for hosting us here at Microsoft HQ Jens, it’s great to be able to sit down and discuss working together on our plans for the future!
I think it’s fair to say that farming wouldn’t be the first thing in people’s minds when they hear the name Microsoft. Why is this area of interest to a company that, it’s fair to say, people would often associate with the workplace?
JH: First of all, let me start by saying how incredibly excited I am about the partnership of Microsoft and Vertically Urban.
To answer your question, fundamentally Microsoft believes that technology is a powerful force for good and has the potential to create novel solutions to many of humanity’s issues. In addition, we think that it’s important to ensure those solutions, in turn, lead towards a sustainable future where everyone has access to the benefits and opportunities created by them.
With that in mind, what is a more important use of technology than to ensure humanity has the fundamental resources to thrive both now and in the future?
With both that and the goals of the HORISS platform in mind, I think we’re talking about a very relevant topic today, food security.
AL: Food security has always been a topic of conversation, the empty shelves seen in many places during the lockdown phase of the COVID-19 pandemic demonstrated to everyone the fragility of our fresh food supply chain in its current form.
While this, Brexit, and the war in Ukraine are probably the biggest reasons we’re all talking about food security right now, many other factors will impact our ability to feed humanity.
If you look at drought, climate change, population growth, these are all things that are (also) changing the dynamic of the way we grow and produce our food. It’s evermore become the forefront of our mind that we must grow indoors to fulfil the demand that’s there.
JH: Ultimately it sounds like we need to get ready almost for the future, in terms of population growth but also other factors that we might not be able to control, right?
If you navigate that space and look at what Vertically Urban is doing, what do you see as some of the key enabling factors that you’re driving with the company?
AL: We see it as a full package. We can offer sensing, we can offer software (HORISS), we can offer hardware, to enable all these farms of the future to become the providers of our food.
JH: I know that the team are super excited to work with your organisation on that. So basically, the HORISS software, if I understand this correctly, monitors the growth process in the plant and adjusts the environmental parameters, and that is even like, intelligent in a way?
AL: Correct Jens. I mean essentially if you look at the AI technology using sensors, camera vision, algorithms, what it’s effectively doing is monitoring how crops are performing and making sure that what’s happening is they’re getting fed the right nutrient dose, they’re getting the right amount of light and all the other things that are required to achieve the desired growth.
Microsoft’s AI capability will excel in the processing and analysis of the vast amounts of data collected by the HORISS system. The aim is to identify trends and patterns in the data that allows us to not only recreate conditions that result in the most desirable end crop, but eventually to automatically spot and remedy issues occurring during the growth cycle, crucially, well before they would be spotted by a human resulting in minimal impact to the final harvest.
The more data HORISS harvests and incorporates into the model, the earlier it’ll be able to detect issues and the more effectively it’ll be able to remedy them in a timely manner reducing waste of resources or indeed failure of the whole crop.
In a nutshell, what we’re looking for is an optimisation that maximises crop yield, whilst minimising resource use, and AI helps that optimisation. How can you see the way that Microsoft can help us enable (that) in the future?
JH: Good question. I mean Microsoft, first and foremost, we’re a platform company right, so we’re trying to be always at the cutting edge in terms of you know new developments in these fields, including various AI technologies from you know, vision to object recognition to other sort of subdomains in that space. But I think ultimately also we have a responsibility to partner with companies like yours, to bring this to the market together, and enable scenarios that in your case, actually are for the better, you know for the good! Yeah, that’s why I’m really excited to see a partnership like ours come to life right.
AL: We’re really excited to be working with Microsoft too!
JH: So far, we’ve talked about satisfying demand in terms of raw volume, but in most cases, the final crop also needs to taste great for it to be classed as a success. We all enjoy eating tasty food, right?
Machines and computers obviously can’t taste a crop directly, that’s the domain of humans, so it’s vital that we find other ways to ensure that whatever we grow also tastes as desired.
This is a great example of a specific challenge HORISS and Microsoft AI can take on, isn’t it?
AL: Indeed, creating a proxy for taste is both the most challenging and interesting part of the process. In other words, can we find a set of growing conditions that guarantees a great tasting harvest? Furthermore, can we get to a point where we know the specific influence of each of those variables?
Within a HORISS-controlled CEA system, there will be a detailed record of the conditions that each crop experienced over its lifetime. If we flag the outcomes as desirable and undesirable, those datasets can be combined and analysed by Microsoft’s AI. Over time, the system will be able to calculate growing conditions that not only ensure an optimal crop yield, but ensure it’ll look and taste desirable too.
Ultimately only humans can decide if that last part is a success or not.
JH: Absolutely, it’s important to remember that whilst AI is a powerful tool, it is not a panacea for everything nor is it a total replacement for humans, if anything it takes on the more repetitive and intensively analytical tasks, freeing up humans to do other, more complex work that AI just isn’t suited to.
For instance, if we look at the relatively simple concept of picking an apple from a tree. A human can easily navigate stray branches and leaves, assess the ripeness and adapt to the strength of a stalk. Plucking the bounty from the tree with relative ease and in many cases without really looking. AI-controlled robots struggle with this task as there are too many variables that don’t fit within a pattern, the apples may be hidden behind a branch or leaf; An apple may look ripe from one direction but not another; Two identical-looking apples may have different stalk strengths, etc.
AL: Good point…I think it’s easy to get carried away with what you see in the movies compared to what is actually possible in the real world!
One of the reasons that CEA is particularly suited to AI control is that the regular layout is regular making sensors much easier to locate and removing many complex variables from consideration. This makes it much easier to collect valid data and therefore truly useful outputs.
What would you say is the dream end goal of Microsoft’s AI involvement with Vertically Urban, HORRIS, and the wider CEA industry?
JH: We’d love to see a future where all of humanity has a reliable and sufficient food supply, that is both tasty and nutritious. All done with less waste and minimal impact on the environment.
AL: Yeah, I think food waste is not talked about enough, I remember recently seeing a statistic that around 19% of all lettuce grown in the UK ends up going to waste which is crazy.
There’s a lot of investment by the big supermarket chains in the CEA sector, especially in vertical farms to secure supply. It’ll be interesting to see how smartly they utilise them to reduce waste too.
They (supermarkets) already use the power of AI to predict shopper behaviour and control their procurement and distribution network. Integrating an AI-controlled smart vertical farm into that supply chain would allow produce to be grown only as required which has a huge potential impact.
JH: Indeed…it’d be great to see less produce going to waste for sure! Our conversation has really been an eye opener and I look forward to learning more as time goes on.
AL: It has been a pleasure speaking with you too, thank you for your insights into the place of AI in the CEA industry. We’re certainly looking forward to a long and fruitful relationship with you and Microsoft.
JH: Likewise. A pleasure to chat to you too.