Andrew Ng, one of the world's foremost pioneers of artificial intelligence, has partnered with Chinese tool maker Zoomlion (Zhonglian Chongda in Chinese) to develop AI projects for the agricultural sector.
London-born Andrew, who has his roots in Hong Kong, is the founder of Landing.ai, an artificial intelligence startup that has a strategic partnership deal with Foxconn, the world's largest electronics contract manufacturer. The company has already undertaken projects in South Korea, Japan, Europe and even some Latin American countries.
As one of the most influential engineers in the AI field, Andrew’s foray into agriculture has surprised many.
Speaking at the Zoomlion project launch on July 31, Andrew said he remembers his father, who had to work in a rice field briefly, explain to him the hardships of agricultural labour. He hopes his project will streamline the efforts invested in the sector and alleviate the peasants’ burden.
However, this emotional connection with agriculture is only one part that must have lured Andrew to try and bring in a major disruption to the sector.
According to government figures, China only has 0.43 hectares of arable land per person, while the US has 173.3. There is a vast pressure on the land, peasants and ecosystem to feed a population of 1.3 billion.
Over the last few years, small farmlands are being clubbed together to form vast swathes of continuous large fields which require more labour. This promises potentially good times ahead for the agricultural machinery industry, Zoomlion’s fields of expertise. Not only that, “rural revitalization” was included in the country’s Communist Party’s Constitution during the last Party Congress, as one of its main goals for the next decades.
The Chinese urbanization process is slowing down. Beijing and Shanghai are trying to reduce their populations, as was evidenced last winter when hundreds of migrant workers were expelled from Beijing. Transforming the countryside into a new land of opportunity could be beneficial to China’s social stability.
For that, the government will guarantee a “strategic financial input” into the countryside, according to the National Strategic Plan for Rural Vitalization. Investors in big cities have also noticed this opportunity. According to the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, China’s agriculture financing has a CNY 3 trillion gap, which makes it a perfect field for the fin-tech sector. Alibaba’s Ant Finance has 38.2 million registered farmer-users of its online financial services, according to TechNode.
For someone like Andrew Ng who was VP & chief scientist at Baidu and one of the minds that helped establish Google Brain, the internet giant’s deep learning artificial intelligence research team, a partnership with the relatively unknown Zoomlion could seem like a step back. In reality it could just trigger radical changes to agriculture in the country.
Zoomlion, which was founded in 1992, has proven to be an innovative company. In the last years, Zoomlion has entered the intelligent manufacturing sector and has already developed agricultural machines with a self-driving system that are able to harvest crops autonomously.
Not only that, the company has established a big data center that will serve as a base for the development of artificial intelligence projects. Zoomlion’s technological team was praised by Andrew during the presentation of the project: “Chairman Zhan Chunxin has an excellent strategic foresight,” he quipped.
Andrew Ng also thinks that the project could potentially help solve two of China’s biggest headaches: food security and pollution. Thanks to big data, automatized farms will be able to optimize the use of fertilizers and pesticides, minimizing the impact on the people and the environment. Big data will be used to make farming more efficient. For example, weather data could be used to deliver grain harvest forecast for a particular area.
As opposed to autonomous cars, that have almost endless factors and risks to consider, self-driving agricultural machinery is simpler. Chen Yongjun, Zoomlion Research Institute vice president explained how a tractor drives at approximately 10 kmph, a speed that makes projects easier and cheaper to execute.
According to the partnership deal, Landing.ai will mainly focus on manufacture technology and training. Andrew Ng explained how Deeplearning.ai has already began training Zoomlion’s engineers, a process “cannot be completely online and needs the participation of many people”.