If you were playing a word association game, it wouldn’t be off the mark if someone said Microsoft and someone else said Windows. The words are virtually synonymous.
However, I’m not sure many people playing the same game would associate Microsoft and agriculture. Yet Microsoft, which revolutionized productivity software for businesses and personal-use computers, is well invested in revolutionizing agriculture.
During WEDA’s 2019 North American Dealer Conference, Kevin Peesker, president, Microsoft-Canada, offered dealers a glimpse into the company’s somewhat unknown but major investment in the agricultural industry.
Canadian Equipment Dealer spoke with Peesker about his company’s involvement in agriculture.
“The reality is that every industry must be considered a technology industry – agriculture is no different. The world is currently in the midst of a technological revolution – it’s transforming every industry, from banking and medicine, to manufacturing and agriculture,” says Peesker. “And, if we harness the power of technology correctly, it has the potential to solve some of the world’s biggest challenges.”
Some of those biggest challenges are already being met, said Peesker, through Artificial Intelligence. “We are already witnessing how AI is transforming agriculture in important ways. Many farmers who manage large-scale operations are taking advantage of innovative technologies like self-driving tractors that use GPS, satellite imagery, and AI to plant more efficiently.” Adds Peesker, the use of sensors and machine learning help farmers “to make smarter decisions about when to irrigate and how much fertilizer to apply.”
“Through investments in our featured project, FarmBeats, and grantee projects on nearly every continent, we are enabling data-driven farming in communities with less connectivity,” continues Peesker. “This includes the use of machine learning algorithms, along with low-cost sensors and drones to increase productivity, and reduce environmental impact and costs.”
The growth of AI
Most people understand that AI, in its simplest form, is training machines to perform human tasks. However, the term has been around since the mid-50s but it’s now rapid development and applications are widespread and mostly go unnoticed by people.
Self-driving tractors and field application equipment, trucks and cars are products of AI. Voice recognition used by people with smartphones is a product of AI. We can program an object, such as Siri or Alexa, to recognize voice commands and play a certain song or provide weather updates.
As Peesker notes, AI is already being used in agriculture and Microsoft is racking up quite a list of accomplishments as shown in the graphic Microsoft AI Breakthroughs.
“This highlights the AI breakthroughs Microsoft has had over the years and will continue to have. What this demonstrates is the pace at which we are developing advanced technology across object recognition, speech, machine reading and translation, and applying it to our daily routine,” explains Peesker.
“Over the last few years, we’ve seen how technology is an equalizer. It has the unique ability to breakdown accessibility barriers and offer enormous potential by enabling people to do more at home, at work and in their daily lives; so, we will continue to drive technology breakthroughs to help empower every person and organization on the planet to achieve more.”
“From an agriculture perspective, over time, AI will help farmers evolve into agricultural technologists, using data to optimize yields down to individual rows of plants,” says Peesker. “Farmers without connectivity can get AI benefits right now, with tools as simple as an SMS-enabled phone and the Sowing App. Meanwhile, farmers with Wi-Fi access can use FarmBeats to get a continually AI-customized plan for their land. With such IoT- and AI-driven solutions, farmers can meet the world’s needs for increased food sustainably – growing production and revenues without depleting precious natural resources.”
According to ZDNet.com, The Internet of Things, or IoT, refers to the billions of physical devices around the world that are now connected to the internet, all collecting and sharing data. ZDNet is a destination for professionals seeking to research technology-related issues, and solve business technology problems.
The load on food producers
With arable land at a premium and a finite supply of water, the task facing food producers is huge. According to Peesker, the role of AI comes into focus.
“This is where AI and machine learning can boost yield and support farmers in meeting these increased targets. By 2050, the typical farm is expected to generate an average of 4.1 million data points every day. AI and machine learning can interpret this data for farmers, helping them continually tweak crop inputs to boost yields,” says Peesker.
“Farmers can use AI to determine the optimal date to sow crops, precisely allocate resources such as water and fertilizer, identify crop diseases for swifter treatment, and detect and destroy weeds. Machine learning makes these activities smarter over time. It can also help farmers forecast the year ahead by using historic production data, long-term weather forecasts, genetically modified seed information, and commodity pricing predictions, among other inputs, to recommend how much seed to sow.”
“Precision farming technology has the power to augment and extend farmers’ deep knowledge about their land, making production more sustainable,” adds Peesker. “This advanced technology can increase farm productivity by 45 percent while reducing water intake by 35 percent.”
Smart data-driven agriculture
As Peesker mentioned, the average farm has the capability to generate millions of data points every single day, offering incredibly valuable information that can be leveraged to increase yields, lower costs and ensure sustainability.
“We are working with farmers to deploy robots, ground-based wireless sensors, and drones to assess growing conditions and gather important data. They can then capitalize on cloud services and edge computing to process the data, identify trends and benefit from new and evolving insights.”
During Peesker’s keynote at the association’s conference, he mentioned FarmBeats. He says FarmBeats was developed by Microsoft “to work towards an end-to-end approach, from sensors to the cloud, to solve the problem.”
“Although technology can help farmers, its adoption is limited because many farms around the world don’t have power, or Internet connectivity, and the farmers are typically not technology savvy,” notes Peesker.
“Our goal is to enable data-driven farming. We believe that data, coupled with the farmer’s knowledge and intuition about his or her farm, can help increase farm productivity, and also help reduce costs. However, getting data from the farm is extremely difficult since there is often no power in the field or Internet on the farms. As part of the FarmBeats project, we are building several unique solutions to solve these problems using low-cost sensors, drones, and vision and machine learning algorithms. Through this program, we are democratizing AI for farmers around the world.”
When discussing FarmBeats, Peesker mentioned Microsoft is facing challenges. Specifically, those challenges center on 1) no farm connectivity, 2) precision mapping and 3) slow cloud connectivity. He says Microsoft hopes to overcome these challenges through the FarmBeats program.
“Often the communities that need AI the most lack the physical and technology infrastructure required to support it. And access to high-speed connectivity and reliable power are still challenges in many parts of the world, he says. “To help address this, we are working with our partners to bring affordable broadband to rural communities in countries such as Colombia, India, Kenya, South Africa, and the United States through the Airband Initiative. Our first task is to get these communities connected, so farmers can benefit from AI and machine learning, even if they lack internet access to their individual farms.”
As noted previously, agriculture isn’t something most people would associate with Microsoft. But FarmBeats is changing that view. FarmBeats is determined to address challenges related to the ability of rural or underdeveloped areas to either receive data or provide data. This leads to another Microsoft effort, AI for Earth, which reinforces Microsoft’s commitment to agriculture.
AI for Earth
“AI for Earth is a $50 million, five-year commitment set up to address global environmental challenges in the core focus areas of climate, agriculture, water, and biodiversity,” explains Peesker.
“When it comes to urgent climate-related challenges, time is too short and current human resources are too few to solve these issues without the exponential power of AI. Our work with organizations on the front lines of environmental advocacy gives us the opportunity to impact the world in a positive way with AI. As a global technology leader, we have the responsibility to act and we’ve done so by putting Microsoft AI in the hands of those who need it most, driving scientific discovery and the development of innovative solutions that engage everyone, everywhere in protecting the planet.”
“But our work is just beginning,” continues Peesker. “It’s clear that to compute data on a global scale, we need a truly integrated planetary computer. That’s why we’re looking forward to announcing more grants and featured projects.”
Microsoft offers free learning resources
Breakthroughs in technology seem to arrive at the speed of light and often outpaces the ability of most people to comprehend what’s occurring. As a result, there is some reluctance – even fear – by some to only get their toes wet. Peesker says people need to become immersed.
“When it comes to adopting technology, you need to embrace a tech intensity mindset and get comfortable with being uncomfortable. Fundamentally, technology can no longer exist in a silo – it must be infused into every job, across all industries,” says Peesker.
“Businesses have an incredible opportunity to capitalize on the digital economy, but it starts with a cultural shift. Digital transformation is no longer just for traditional technology companies – every company must consider themselves a tech company.”
“Microsoft Learn is a great resource for business professionals who are starting with the basics, and we recently launched AI Business School – a free comprehensive AI business training that helps organizations not only define an AI strategy and enable an AI-ready culture, but also understand the implications of responsible AI in business,” says Peesker.
“These are just two of the many programs Microsoft offers to help people at all tech levels upskill and prepare for the jobs of tomorrow.”
Don’t become a laggard
As Peesker closed his keynote address at the association’s conference, he encouraged dealers not to become laggards when it comes to technology.
“Agricultural equipment dealers have a unique opportunity to revolutionize farming,” suggests Peesker. “From self-driving tractors that plant more efficiently to sensors that make smarter decisions about irrigation and fertilization, AI and machine learning have the potential to increase productivity, decrease costs, and ensure sustainability. By 2050 farmers will need to increase food production by about 70 percent to feed the world’s population; it will take a global effort to meet this challenge and it starts with embracing a tech intensity mindset.”
Looking back at the word association game, it’s obvious that Microsoft and agriculture really do go together like Microsoft and Windows.
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