REAP Conference 2024 registration is open
Book tickets, feature in the technology exhibition or apply for a REAP bursary - available for farmers and those in full-time agriculture-related study

From algorithms to AI – ChatGPT and agri-tech

Agri-TechE Blog
Agri-TechE

With high profile public commentary about the future of artificial intelligence (AI) in society, this month we’re chatting about ChatGPT and its role in agri-tech. 

In case you haven’t tried it, ChatGPT is an advanced AI language model that can generate human-like text and engage in natural language conversations (so it told us).

AI is no stranger to agriculture; increasingly technologies exploit algorithms that have “learned” on real-world data how to make decisions. From early estimates of harvest yield to discerning weed from crop for precision applications, AI is already making ways into everyday agriculture operations.

But ChatGPT is a potential game-changer as the most well-known of the emerging “generative AI”.

Some versions are (currently, at least) free to use, widely available and learning rapidly. You simply type in a challenge, question or task and it types out the answer in front of your eyes. The exciting thing about ChatGPT is that its dataset is the whole of the internet, in effect – some would argue – all human knowledge.

How can ChatGPT’s AI benefit us?

Technology advancements like this make knowledge more accessible to everyone. New users can interact with these algorithms without training. You no longer need to know coding to be able to get a bespoke data analysis based on your criteria.

And the answers can tap into new, creative avenues. Ask ChatGPT for the plot holes in your favourite film, and I’d be surprised if it doesn’t find something you’ve never thought of, no matter how many times you’ve seen it.

What if we ask it what we haven’t studied in soils? Or if there’s a pattern in the data between two of our sensors? Do solar flares affect our milk production? Chat to it further, and it can give ideas on how to investigate the answers.

Then there’s the enormous time-saving potential. Could an agronomist create a bespoke dashboard for a client’s farm-specific needs in a matter of minutes, just by typing a few sentences?

Sounds too good to be true…?

As with all innovations, there are inherent risks.

For example, it can be pretty difficult to find the source for answers provided by ChatGPT. How do we know this information is reliable enough? Or current? And not ‘learnt’ from some unusual or out-dated options contained in the web with little scientific support but presented by ChatGPT as a fact like any other.

Plus, when technology is so fast moving, regulating it is extremely difficult. To some extent, we are relying on the developers to test it, self-regulate, and ensure ethical development. Frequent scandals of badly trained algorithms – such as the GCSE results tool used by the UK government, or the consistent bias against ethnic minorities in crime-reduction – highlight the need for constant real-life assessment and testing by experts in the field.

Although users need no training to ask questions, knowing what prompts to use and how best to use them is key. ChatGPT is just a tool like any other – if we don’t know how to use them effectively, they can’t give us useful outputs!

Will ChatGPT replace us?

Given time, ChatGPT and its successors will probably design the world. What then of the role of the expert vet, the agronomist – even the UK’s longest established agri-tech network organisation?

No-one has a monopoly on information – almost everything is “out there” if you know where to look, which YouTube videos to watch, what website to search and who to talk to. But who has the time for all this research and information gathering?

This is where ChatGPT and its friends will no doubt be part of life going forward – to aid and augment.

For Agri-TechE (and our members), we see this is as a tool to help us scale our activities, be even more effective, and provide additional insights – but not as a replacement.

ChatGPT will give a comprehensive answer to the question you ask; Agri-TechE will respond to your question, set up a bespoke introduction, and give you useful and relevant answers to the questions you didn’t even know to ask yet… So says Andrew Francis , Senior Farm Manager at Elveden Farms:

I take great value from events like REAP because often you get ideas and come away with something that you didn’t go intending to find. In some ways you’re being presented with the answers before you have considered the question.

The REAP conference was fantastic and I would liken it to having a room full of answers floating above you and just needing to grab the right answer to match your question – sometimes before you even know the question!

Smart farming technology to tackle black-grass problem

Agri-TechE Article
Agri-TechE

An innovative project for black-grass control that aims to use precision farming technology, sensors and AI  xarvio Field Managerto deliver a smart sprayer for targeted applications has gained funding from the Farming Innovation Programme – Small R&D Partnership Projects. The collaboration will include Agri-TechE members BASF Digital Farming and Rothamsted Research along with experts from Bosch and Chafer Machinery.

Black-grass economically damaging

Black-grass (Alopecurus myosuroides) is a weed that inhibits the growth of wheat crop, reducing its yield and therefore damaging the productivity of farms.

It is threatening the sustainability of UK cereal production.

David Comont from Rothamsted Research said: “Black-grass has become the UK’s most pressing weed problem, resulting in considerable wheat yield losses annually and causing ever-increasing herbicide use as farmers attempt to control this species.”

It is estimated that the weed is responsible for annual wheat losses of up to 800,000 tons, with associated economic losses of approximately £400 million.

Using the Bosch Smart Spraying camera technology and software, Chafer will design innovative boom sprayers to detect, identify and map black-grass at different growth stages within cereal crops across a farm. The smart sprayer technology will be tested on commercial farms selected from the Rothamsted Black-Grass Research Initiative (BGRI).

Agronomists from Rothamsted will label the images and will support Bosch in training algorithms to recognise black-grass in cereal crops. This information is then processed and analysed by BASF Digital Farming and delivered to its advanced xarvio Digital Farming Solutions crop optimization platform.

In the platform, the information will be used to map infield populations to support the development of integrated weed management plans for targeted black-grass control.

Additionally, beside a superior performance in black-grass control, the project could result in reduced herbicide volumes sprayed in-field. This would minimise unintended direct consequences on other organisms and reduce the potential for leaching into other vulnerable ecosystems, such as waterways.

Daniel Ebersold, Head of Digital Farming Project House (Smart Machinery) at BASF Digital Farming, said: “Developing “smarter” systems which can automatically monitor and more precisely spray this weed has the potential to maximise control, whilst reducing both herbicide use and costs to farmers.

“By working together on this important project our shared aim is to find an innovative solution that will measurably reduce the impact of black-grass infestation over time.”

More about BASF and Rothamsted Research.