LAS CRUCES – “Do Androids dream of electric sheep?” was the title of a science fiction novel set in the late 1960s. While future robots may not dream of sheep, they may herd them, as the impact of artificial intelligence on agriculture leads to automated livestock farming and technology that increases food security in arid regions like those in the western US
“Imagine if there were no more cowboys on horseback chasing cattle,” said Enrico Pontelli, dean of New Mexico State University’s College of Arts and Sciences and a Regents Professor of computer science. “We could remotely direct livestock from water source to water source and prevent overgrazing of different regions. The power of automation will be enormous.”
NMSU recently received a $2 million grant from the National Science Foundation Research Traineeship (NRT) program. Pontelli is the principal investigator of the project titled “Artificial Intelligence for Arid Land Agriculture (AIALA). Co-principal investigators in NMSU’s College of Agriculture, Consumer and Environmental Sciences include Lara Prihodko, associate professor of pasture ecology and Hatim Geli, a assistant professor of animal and dissemination sciences Son Tran, professor of computer science and department head, and Huiping Cao, professor of computer science, are also co-principal investigators on the project.
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“The goal is to develop training programs at the graduate level, at the doctoral level, with the aim of building research capacity among graduate students at the intersection of AI and agriculture,” Pontelli said. “We are particularly focused on arid land agriculture as the biggest challenge we face as the climate continues to change. It is, of course, expected that these graduates will become active researchers and advance the state-of-the-art in the field. The program gives these students the skills to do that research and the opportunities to do that research at NMSU.”
The NSF program is designed to encourage the implementation of transformative models for STEM graduate education. Pontelli and his colleagues will develop the curriculum over the summer, recruit candidates in the fall and expect the first cohort of graduate students to join the program next spring.
“We plan to develop workshops, lectures and roundtables where students can come together to explore research methods and topics,” Pontelli said. “One of the most important things is to bring students from both sides together – students from agriculture with students from AI – so that they can learn from each other.”
Pontelli sees the NSF-funded program as a way to expand NMSU’s influence on a national scale. “This is used to build components at graduate level. For me this program is very important because it is a puzzle piece that I am trying to build. We have a separate effort that we’re going to develop at the K-12 level. I really think NMSU has the potential to become a leader in AI education.”
Funding from the scholarship will be used for five years to pay a specified number of graduate students a stipend to be research fellows in the program. Grant funds will also be used to pay faculty members who will help develop training materials. These training modules will then become a permanent tool for training future researchers.
“You really need people who can build the future automation of agriculture and those who are willing to run it, know how to use it and keep developing that technology,” Pontelli said. “AI is going to play a much bigger role in agriculture as we move forward.”
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Pontelli sees the critical importance of educating researchers to use artificial intelligence in solving agricultural problems, as the agricultural workforce continues to shift and fewer people are available to do the work.
“As the arid regions continue to grow, we have very large regions with sparse populations and limited labor availability,” Pontelli said. “Agricultural areas will have to rely on automated systems.”
“EYE ON RESEARCH” is provided by New Mexico State University. This week’s feature was written by Minerva Baumann of NMSU Marketing and Communications. She can be reached at 575-646-7566 or [email protected]