Artificial intelligence in agriculture is attracting the attention of technology bigwigs like IBM. At a time when the whole world is disrupted by COVID-19 and social distancing is the norm, electronic mandis, for example, could offer an excellent way for transactions between farmers and customers in the post-COVID world.
Manoj Balachandran who heads CSR at IBM India and South Asia, spoke to The CSR Journal about how the company is using tech for agriculture and social good. He’s an Agile leader who leads innovation and automation when it comes to his CSR activities. In his previous role, Manoj spearheaded one of IBM’s largest CSR programmes called STEM for Girls, which reaches out to girl students to encourage them to pursue careers in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math.
Excerpts from the exclusive interview:
Q 1. How is IBM is using technology for social impact in agriculture?
At IBM we not only solve business problems but also put the power of tech to work for good. Being a responsible steward of technology is core to IBM culture and GoodTech is at the heart of it.
In India, the agriculture sector continues to keep a traditional approach to farming practices that are dependent on seasonal weather, natural water availability, soil fertility etc. However, relying on traditional knowledge and methods may no longer be enough to meet the challenges facing modern agriculture. By shifting towards a tech-driven, sustainable approach, farmers can have an advantage by taking full control of their available data.
Modern sustainable agricultural practices today use technology and other resources to provide insights on optimum weather conditions for cultivation, market fluctuations, supply chain, assessing farmer creditworthiness for loans and insurance, thus paving the way for digitally equipping the agricultural ecosystem including farmers.
With the explosion of data from farm equipment, environmental sensors, and remote input, it’s impractical to rely only on intuition or traditional technology to understand what drives variation in yield or provide guidance to growers. Combining artificial intelligence (AI), Internet of Things (IoT), and predictive analytics can aid stakeholders across the agriculture ecosystem in gaining insights into projected yields and potential problems, helping to enable better decisions.
IBM Agriculture helps overcome obstacles to digital transformation by combining the power of AI, data analytics and predictive insights with unique agricultural IoT data, the expertise of veteran food and agribusiness industry leaders and decades of our research.
Q 2. How does Artificial Intelligence help in Precision Agriculture?
With the help of Precision Agriculture techniques, growers can identify certain types and severity levels of pest and disease damage. IBM has brought Data and AI together to create Watson Decision Platform for Agriculture – an innovation that draws upon our most advanced capabilities in AI, analytics, IoT, Cloud, and weather to create a suite of solutions that extracts valuable insights. For example, a grower can take a photograph of a plant up-close and with the help of Watson identify what type of pest is affecting the plant. This solution also uses satellite imagery to help producers understand which parts of their field are under stress.
IBM’s agriculture solution combines predictive technology from The Weather Company (an IBM Business) with IoT data into a single electronic record of truth so that farmers, food companies, grain processors and product distributors around the world can leverage insights to drive more profitable decisions resulting in:
1) Higher grower and food company profitability
2) Better crop output quality and value
3) Greater sustainability and efficiency
Q 3. Your company is working with the Ministry of Agriculture for farmer initiatives. Could you share insights on the outcomes in various districts?
The Ministry of Agriculture and Farmers Welfare collaborated with us to deploy our precision agriculture solution which combines AI and weather technology to obtain and analyze farm-level insights. A pilot project to deploy IBM Watson Decision Platform for Agriculture was successfully implemented in Nanded (Maharashtra), Bhopal (MP) and Rajkot (Gujarat). The project gave insights into farm level weather forecast and village level soil moisture that were utilized to help local farmers.
IBM has also worked with Krishi Vigyan Kendra, part of Baramati, Maharashtra-based Agriculture Development Trust, to develop the ‘Krushik’ mobile app specifically for farmers in the state to boost overall agricultural productivity. The digital information portal, made available for free in Marathi, provides weather-based agro-advisory, agriculture-related news, crop market rates, information about government schemes and most importantly, 15 days village-level weather forecast powered by data from The Weather Company.
With monsoons in India impacted in the last few years owing to changing weather patterns, the detailed and accurate weather forecast information delivered through the app has helped more than 1.5 lakh farmers make more informed decisions on their crops.
Q 4. What is the innovation GRAF about? How will it be directed to individual farmers in India?
In 2019, we launched the IBM Global High-Resolution Atmospheric Forecasting System (GRAF), the first hourly-updating commercial weather system that predicts something as small as a thunderstorm, virtually anywhere on the planet. Compared to existing models, IBM GRAF provides a nearly 200% improvement in forecasting resolution for much of the globe (12 – 3 km) and can be used by farmers to better anticipate and prepare for dramatic shifts in weather.
This level of forecasting precision had been available in the U.S., Japan and a handful of Western European countries. IBM GRAF, for the first time, provides such enhanced forecasts across the globe, including Asia, Africa and South America, areas among the most vulnerable to the increasingly intense extreme weather resulting from climate change. It is the world’s first operational high-resolution, hourly-updating model that covers the entire globe.
Q 5. The Indian developers behind AI Farm won the IBM Call for Code Asia Pacific Challenge last year. How will IBM support them?
The Call for Code Global Challenge by IBM is the most ambitious tech for good platform bringing together the world’s developers and problem-solvers to take on pressing societal issues. India’s developer community has been one of the major participants in this global effort. Indian team AI Farm won the Call for Code Asia Pacific Challenge 2020 for an intelligent system that evaluates climate and soil conditions to provide farmers with information to adapt their crop strategies.
AI Farm received an award of $5,000 for building a low-cost system that uses sensors to monitor groundwater levels, temperature, and humidity. The system uses the IBM Cloud, IBM Watson IoT platform, IBM Watson Visual Recognition, and Node-RED flows to create a hyperlocal weather forecast specific to the farm. The solution is currently being tested out as a pilot in Maharashtra.
Q 6. You have teamed up with IIT-Delhi and IIT-Bombay to advance AI research in India. What do the collaborations entail?
In 2018, IIT Bombay and IBM Research India joined forces via the AI Horizon Network to accelerate to advance AI Research and its applications – for AI technology and India-centric AI. To advance our NLP capabilities and enable Watson to understand Indian languages beyond just translation, we leveraged our AIHN partners from IIT Bombay’s Center for Indian Language Technology (C-FLIT). Working with C-FLIT, we have been able to apply AI-deep learning, shallow semantic understanding models for Indian Language and address challenges related to the low resource, understanding of Hindi language sense, intent and sentiment.
An outcome of this joint effort is that today, Watson can understand the Hindi language natively in Devanagri, including sentence structure, grammar, and other nuances. This collaboration has seen high-quality paper publications at top conferences for Machine Learning and AI like ACL, AAAI, EMNLP, EACL and NAACL.
Recently, IBM has also began working with IIT-Bombay faculty and students who specialize in building Speech technologies for Indian languages. The work leverages the phonetic nature of Indian languages to understand multiple dialects, disfluencies of conversational speech and nuances of accents.
The AIHN collaboration between IBM, IIT-Delhi and IIT-Bombay has also made significant progress in other areas of NLP and AI such as question-answering, multimodal AI, and neural symbolic AI. The collaboration enables rich experience for the students involved with industry stints via internships and mentors from both academic and industry backgrounds.
Q 7. The pandemic has restricted movement for workforces across the planet. How did IBM India employees continue their volunteering efforts?
Volunteering is part of our company’s DNA. A large number of IBM employees came forward and volunteered their time, professional skills, personal and financial assistance to support their colleagues and their families during the pandemic. Some key initiatives are:
COVID squads: Squads staffed by employee volunteers have been constituted to take service requests and match them to verified sources of available resources – hospital beds, ICUs, oxygen requirements, ambulances, medicines etc. With over 2000 volunteers already signed up, this is really making a difference to quickly triage requests and ensure that needs are matched to resources available nationally.
Employee support groups have been set up across cities to provide employees with a platform to discuss issues, challenges, concerns and coping mechanisms such as managing stress, staying active and promoting self-care.
Employee giving: We have partnered with United Way Mumbai to drive an employee giving campaign. Employees can donate financially to the NGO which are working with several partners at the ground level to provide critical and emergency care for the community. Today we have been able to provide oxygen concentrators to our NGO partners in Chennai and Kolkata through the employee giving campaign.
NGO volunteers: IBMers are volunteering to become first responders on Covid-19 helplines through a collaboration with StepOne. StepOne is an NGO having an interface with 18 state governments and is helping to train and deploy volunteers to respond to queries on the government helpline.
Over 2000 IBMers were engaged in virtual mentoring and skills initiative across our programmes where they teach kids basic English speaking skills, create audiobooks for visually impaired learners, virtual mentoring for the underprivileged students, conducting Webinars for technology students during the lockdown etc
Employees come together internally to help out our interns who come from Atal Tinkering Labs and our ITI programs where they go through anywhere between 2 weeks to 3 months of internships where IBMers mentor them through a variety of topics including AI, Design Thinking, Presentation skills etc leading to a pitch night where they pitch their ideas and proof of concepts.
IBM globally recognizes the best volunteering efforts with the annual Volunteer Excellence Awards. This year. IBM India won 3 of the 15 Global awards and all of them were for helping underprivileged children during COVID-19.
Q 8. STEM for Girls is your flagship CSR programme in India. How far has it come in its reach and impact?
IBM STEM for Girl India’s vision is to prepare over 200,000 high school girls, across multiple states, through a 3-year programme to pursue and understand their potential in ‘New Collar’ careers. In 2019, we began working with 10 states in India on a three-year programme that initially reached 800 secondary schools and 78,000 girls and 45,000 boys in the first year. We have joined forces with various partners like Quest Alliance and American India Foundation for the STEM for Girls project—designed to encourage girls to pursue STEM as higher education and a career option.
In 2021, STEM for Girls has reached over 1.8 lakh students through 1,300 schools. This three-year curriculum goes beyond coding and integrates life skills, gender, digital literacy and career development, which enables young girls to negotiate better futures for themselves. The project is being implemented in 11 states currently —Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Bihar, Haryana, Punjab, Odisha, Assam, Rajasthan, Gujarat and Uttarakhand.
Q 9. How is IBM helping India solve its skilling problem?
IBM is working with multiple government bodies across sectors to incorporate technical and professional skills training as part of curriculums and to provide free digital education through initiatives like STEM for Girls, Open P-Tech and SkillsBuild, ITI programme etc.
We are the technology partner to NITI Aayog and Ministry of Education to build sāmShiksha, a digital education platform to provide last-mile connectivity for quality higher education. sāmShiksha has the potential to scale up to become a “single-point” source for higher education in India, by serving as a virtual university that enables easy access to knowledge and skills as well as be a bridge between students, faculty, schools and service providers.
CBSE has collaborated with IBM to develop a curriculum of Artificial Intelligence, to be introduced as an elective subject for class IX to XII. The pilot project was launched as part of the CBSE SEWA programme last year with the aim of reaching 200 schools across 13 states in India. We have now covered 160 schools and over 12,000 students have benefitted from the programme.
We are working with National Skill Development Corporation (NSDC) to offer ‘Open P-TECH’, a free digital education platform focused on emerging technologies and professional development skills, to empower Indian youth on various skills to succeed in future careers.
The Directorate General of Training (DGT) recently announced the results of the 1st Batch (2018-20) of Advanced Diploma (Vocational) in IT, Networking & Cloud Computing. All the trainees successfully completed their course and have been provided job placement also. The DGT & Ministry of Skill Development & Entrepreneurship collaborated with IBM to launch the course in 2018 at two National Skill Training Institutes (NSTI) in Hyderabad and Bangalore and one Women’s Only NSTI in Noida.
Q 10. As a responsible corporate firm, what were the company’s contributions for COVID-19 relief in India?
Our unilateral focus is ensuring the health and safety of our employees, their families, and communities at large. We have put together a comprehensive support plan for our employees and their families to tide through this pandemic. These include:
Care for those impacted:
– Dedicated 24×7 medical helpline through Portea for a variety of services including doctor consultation, medical / home care services, testing services.
– Emergency Transport for Medical Needs: We are offering round the clock emergency transport services for medical requirements for both, employees and their immediate family members who are Covid positive (for transport to a medical facility) and those who are Covid negative (for procuring medical supplies or attend to impacted family members).
– Medically supervised quarantine facilities in hotels: We have worked with Apollo Hospital group to offer medically supervised “step down” facilities at designated hotels in every major city where IBMers can quarantine in case it’s not feasible to do so at home.
Preventive and enhanced care:
– Vaccination for all IBMers: We have started a vaccination drive to inoculate all IBMers and their families across India, starting with Kolkata and Bengaluru, followed by Delhi/NCR, Mumbai, Pune and other cities. The vaccination camps are being rolled out in a phased manner in ten cities and run over the next several days. It is our endeavour to make vaccination easily available to all IBMers and their families. We are in discussions with the hospitals and government authorities to ensure continued availability of vaccines.
– Additional IBM-funded insurance coverage for each insured employee and their covered dependents
– Oxygen concentrators for IBMers: We are making 500 oxygen concentrators available to our employees across India.
– Providing elderly care support service for IBMer families in India: IBM has also partnered with Samarth, one of India’s leading organizations supporting the elderly by creating a COVID care system. Samarth will help the elders deal with the pandemic by providing 24/7 emergency assistance, home care resources, medicines, doctor teleconsultation, food services, oxygen, and requirement for other equipment as needed.
Leveraging the power of tech for impact – IBMer Covid Assist:
– The IBM India team has come together to leverage the AI-powered, IBM Watson Assistant to build an assist solution that:
– Connects IBMers in need with the volunteers for critical resources.
– Provides a unified dashboard to the India COVID Taskforce to enable seamless support for IBMers.
Leveraging our voice and influence to rally global support:
– To meet the global challenge of COVID-19, the world must come together. Last week, Arvind (Krishna, Chairman and CEO) in his note to employees shared how IBM is leveraging its voice and influence to rally global support. IBM is will play a key role in Global Taskforce on Pandemic Response launched by the US Chamber of Commerce later to aid India and other Covid-19 Hot-Spots. The public private partnership will provide immediate assistance to India and will assist in coordinating relief to respond to COVID-19 surges. Key areas include :
– 1,000 Medtronic ventilators and 25,000 oxygen concentrators to be delivered to India
– Network of Human Resources leaders offering practical guidance on supporting employees in India
– We are also closely engaged with the government and government agencies in India to offer our support and we are ready to do more.