Cotton is one of the most important fibers and cash crops of India. The crop plays a dominant role in India’s industrial and agricultural economy by providing a direct livelihood to about 6 million farmers. But the cultivation and maintenance of the crop until harvest is no easy task. One of the critical challenges the cotton farmers face is the inability to manage pests despite heavy usage of pesticide. It was found that nearly 100,000 cotton farmers committed suicide in 2017-18 after a pink bollworm attack destroyed 40% of their yield.
Tackling the problem and helping cotton farmers manage the pest attack is the Mumbai-based non-profit research institute – Wadhwani Institute for Artificial Intelligence. The organization carries a reputation as an independent agency developing AI solutions for social good. Co-founded by successful technology entrepreneurs Romesh and Sunil Wadhwani, the non-profit Institute focusses on harnessing the power of AI to solve deep-rooted problems in healthcare, education, agriculture, and infrastructure to accelerate social development. The institute was inaugurated by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in his previous tenure. PM Modi while inaugurating the Wadhwani AI had said it is a prime example of how the public sector and the private sector can come together with good intentions to build a world-class institute, aimed at benefiting the poor.
“Wadhwani AI will be the AI-focused ‘hub’ conducting research and engineering within the broad domain of Artificial Intelligence, including techniques from Machine Learning, Data Science, and Cognitive Reasoning, as well as related areas such as IoT and computing systems to solve global development challenges,” says the institute’s CEO, an eminent researcher and AI pioneer, Dr. P Anandan.
AI Solutions for pest management
At Wadhwani AI, researchers and technologists are working towards creating solutions that will help reduce crop losses through integrated pest management. The team has developed algorithms that detect two major pests that attack cotton, and have also completed field demos in partnership with the Better Cotton Initiative and the Government of Maharashtra. The team’s biggest aim is to develop a more comprehensive pest management tool that can be ready for testing by October 2019.
In Wadhwani AI’s project, the AI technology, which runs on a basic smartphone, classifies and counts pests based on photos of pest traps taken by farmers and agriculture program workers. This solution can be used to provide millions of farmers with timely, localized advice, reducing crop loss and over-use of pesticides by improving the timing of usage. It is believed that small farmers worldwide depend heavily on government and nonprofit programs to figure out what to do at every step of the crop cycle. By using AI to augment human capabilities and overcome systemic challenges in these large-scale programs especially pest management.
Dr. P Anandan, while interacting, says that digital solutions are definitely the need of the hour as farmers are in distress owing to climate change, water shortage, pest attacks, etc. Digital solutions empower the farmers to be more knowledgeable, so they can adapt and adopt the best practices in farming. Dr. Anandan says that reducing pesticides improves the market value of the crop for the farmer and thus helping them with managing the application of pesticides in a digital way enhances productivity and crop quality.
“Our AI algorithms work by analyzing the image from pest traps, which in turn identifies the kind of pest and gives advisory to the farmer and also issues a warning to contact the local officer if the pest infestation is serious or depending on how harmful the pest is.
Right now, only once a farmer connects to experts, they can guide them through the safety measures. But the AI-based App gives out initial information and thus lets the farmer take action quickly. The advice would be timely, localized, and actionable advice. We have already developed algorithms that detect three major pests, and have completed field demos in partnership with the Better Cotton Initiative and the Government of Maharashtra. We are looking to develop a more comprehensive tool for testing by October this year and will open source our APIs and SDK kits for others to use,” informs Dr. Anandan.
Wadhwani’s AI solution impresses Google; bags grant
Wadhwani AI was chosen to receive a $2 million USD grant to create technologies that will help reduce crop losses in cotton farming, through its integrated pest management. The institute is one of 20 organizations that will share the $25 million in grants from Google.org, credit and consulting from Google Cloud and coaching by Google’s AI experts as a grantee of the Google AI Impact Challenge. The Google AI Impact Challenge was an open call to nonprofits, social enterprises, and research institutions from around the world to submit their ideas to use AI to help address societal challenges. Over 2600 had organizations applied and Wadhwani was one among them.
Dr Anandan expresses that the grant from Google validates the institute’s work, and helps the team put together a dedicated infrastructure and also build on human resources to be able to implement and scale the technology. “This grant is not only about money but about the mentoring from Google – where their solution experts will help us make our solution more precise. We would be using this grant to build infrastructure to scale the solution and take it to new geographies,” informs Dr Anandan.
Not limiting to cotton farming and pesticide management Wadhwani AI has plans in the future to scale its current solutions and build new solutions in agriculture, maternal and child health, and infectious diseases. As a nonprofit organization, the Institute is all set to make headways in providing digital solutions to uplift the economic condition of India.