PULLMAN, Wash. — Washington State University, with a $20 million federal grant from USDA, will lead a new national research institute focused on artificial intelligence, or AI, in agriculture.

The new establishment is called AgAID Institute, short for USDA-NIFA Institute for Agricultural AI for Transforming Workforce and Decision Support, and is backed by the National Science Foundation.

AgAID researchers plan to explore AI solutions to agricultural challenges, using "intelligent" machinery to tackle issues relating to labor, water, weather and climate change. A major goal of the new institute is to research AI in high-value specialty crops.

"Ag has these tremendous opportunities where data science and AI can play key roles," said Ananth Kalyanaraman, WSU computer science professor and director of the new institute.

The U.S. farm industry has gradually been adopting AI technology for years: aerial drones, robotic pickers, driverless smart tractors.

So far, however, most ag-related AI development has happened through the private sector — companies inventing tools and delivering them to users.

In contrast, Kalyanaraman said his vision for AgAID Institute is to involve AI developers, policymakers, farmers and workers in the entire research process.

Qin Zhang, agricultural automation engineer at WSU and AgAID's associate director, said the institute's research will broaden knowledge of agricultural AI and trials may serve as proof-of-concept work private partners can potentially use to invent products.

This August, the researchers are meeting with farmers representing various commodities to discuss possible research focus areas. Then, in October, studies will officially begin.

Most of the research will be done in field work on farms, but the institute is also planning to construct a facility for indoor tests.

AI is commonplace in Midwestern row crops, but in the West, especially among specialty crops, AI is still in its infancy. The institute's leaders aim to change that and already have plans for tests with specialty crops, including apples, cherries, mint and almonds.

Specialty crops make up only about 3.7% of total crop acreage nationwide, according to USDA Farm Service Agency 2021 data, yet account for 87% of the U.S. agricultural labor force because specialty crops tend to be labor-intensive. Researchers say finding new AI tools for these crops could help alleviate labor and other challenges.

AgAID researchers say they also plan to provide AI education and training, including by creating K-12 educational programs to attract more young people to agricultural computing professions.

Kalyanaraman said agricultural computing could be an attractive career opportunity for students who come from rural backgrounds and want to go back to their roots but would prefer a high-skilled job rather than manual labor.

Zhang agreed, calling ag technicians "the future farmers."

He smiled and gestured widely.

The AgAID Institute will bring together faculty and scientists from across disciplines, including computer science, agriculture and agricultural outreach.

In addition to WSU faculty, the institute will also include members from Oregon State University, University of California-Merced, University of Virginia, Carnegie Mellon University, Heritage University, Wenatchee Valley College, Kansas State University, IBM Research and the startup innov8.ag.

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