When we think about agriculture, we tend to think about old-school farming. But although many of us might think that the agricultural community is behind the curve when it comes to implementing new technologies, there is lots of evidence that farmers are actually moving quite quickly to modernize almost everything about the farming process – they're using artificial intelligence in new and amazing ways to bring the process of food cultivation into the future.

Sowing the Seeds

High-tech agriculture starts at the very second that the seed is first placed in the ground. Experts in the field are familiar with “variable rate planting equipment” that does more than just planting a seed down into the dirt somewhere.

As you'll see later in this article, all sorts of artificial intelligence work is being done behind the scenes on predictions – where a seed will grow best, what soil conditions are likely to be, etc. The power of artificial intelligence is being applied to agricultural big data in order to make farming much more efficient – and that's only the beginning. (Learn more about how farmers use big data in Why Big Data Is Big Business in Agriculture.)

Who's Picking Your Food?

Perhaps a better question would be “What’s picking your food?” That's right – companies are already producing robotic harvesting equipment, partially in response to labor gaps that have left farmers scrambling to harvest crops like fruits and berries.

You can see a lot of this at work in documentation from companies like Harvest Croo, which has produced an autonomous strawberry picking machine, and Abundant Technologies, where a vacuum apparatus harvests mature apples from trees.

While manufacturing robots have been around for a while, these harvesting technologies are really something new in many ways. Harvest technologies like the Harvest Croo berry picker operate on the basis of machine vision and sensor fusion to “see” where harvest fruits and berries are. They use sophisticated directed movements to pick precisely. This is the kind of functionality that is very much in the “artificial intelligence” field and mimics human cognition and directed action.

Agricultural robotics is filling a need as labor pools decrease. But it's also saving humans from one of the most repetitive and difficult jobs in our economy.

People simply don't want to have to harvest enormous amounts of produce all day, every day. In that sense, harvest robotics is also making our world a little more enjoyable. Now, if people do want to pick by hand, boutique orchards and gardens offer that option!

As for jobs automation, we'll have to see how our societies deal with the reality that we’re automating almost every other kind of job as well. But for now, harvest robotics presents a real landmark in the very rapid modernization of the farming world.

Eye in the Sky

How are farms using artificial intelligence to direct crop planting, harvesting and more, and how are they getting that data in the first place?

In some trade journals, you can see unmanned aerial vehicles or drones being outfitted with precision sensors, in order to run the fields and get the data that's needed. These airborne surveillance engines can look for stunted crops, signs of pest or weed damage, dryness and many other variables that are part of the difficulty of farming in general. With all of this data in hand, farmers can enhance their production models and their strategies across the lay of the land to decrease risk, waste and liability.

Pest and Weed Control

Yesterday's farmers were living in fear of the windstorm and the grasshopper – not anymore. Farmers are quickly adopting new high-tech ways of protecting plants against weeds and various kinds of pests outdoors. Another alternative is to grow in greenhouses, which is being done as well, but some of the most amazing farming technology is being deployed outside.

The “See and Spray” model acquired by John Deere recently is an excellent example of harnessing the power of artificial intelligence and computer vision.

“We welcome the opportunity to work with a Blue River Technology team that is highly skilled and intensely dedicated to rapidly advancing the implementation of machine learning in agriculture,” John May, president, agricultural solutions, and chief information officer at Deere, said in a press statement, weighing in on the potential of new technologies in farming. “As a leader in precision agriculture, John Deere recognizes the importance of technology to our customers. Machine learning is an important capability for Deere's future.” (Learn about how other industries are using artificial intelligence and machine learning in 5 Ways Companies May Want to Consider Using AI.)

We know that artificial intelligence excels at image processing – computers can now “see” almost as well as we can. So by deploying mobile technologies with AI and computer vision built in, farmers can find weeds and eradicate them, instead of blanket spraying an entire crop. That makes the food cleaner, and it saves enormous amounts of money. It's just another example of real new technologies that are having a dramatic impact on yields and everything else.

Yield Boosting Algorithms

When we talk about machine learning and artificial intelligence, we often talk about algorithms. The mathematical models behind the computer science are the fundamental basis for how we deal with big data to make decisions.

Companies are now quickly developing agricultural yield boosting algorithms that can show farmers what's going to be best for a crop. Despite some concerns about the difficulty of doing this type of analysis in nature, farmers and others have been able to make quite a lot of headway in maximizing crop yield, simply by applying the algorithms and intelligence generators that we've built to help computers imitate our own cognitive abilities.

The Farmer’s Alexa

There is one more very interesting groundbreaking technology that might also be one of the highlights in the modern farmer’s tech toolkit.

Imagine a tired farmer sitting down to dinner at the end of a work day, puzzling over some conundrum – how to keep the crows out of the corn, or whether to seed a rocky patch of earth.

Propping his head on his arms, he directs his question to the next room:

“Alexa?...”

Yes, companies are talking about creating chatbots for farmers, artificial intelligence personalities like the smart home helper “Alexa” that are able to converse with farmers to help them figure out tough problems. We're hoping that these specialized farming chatbots are a little more capable than Alexa, since the current consumer technology basically provides encyclopedic facts and figures and not much else. However, if they're packed with the right answers and analytics information, the farmer’s chatbot could be a real boon to busy farm managers who are doing all they can to expand and grow their businesses.

These are some of the best new technologies coming out to help farmers produce all the food that we need in a rapidly changing world. Population growth and climate change will be massive challenges, but artificial intelligence deployment can help blunt the impact of these and other challenges, and make smart farming much more resistant to the problems that farmers face.