Artificial intelligence (AI) is a booming field drawing in large investments and already leading to major breakthroughs in the fields of drug discovery, chemical and molecular synthesis, computer vision systems, and language models.
It promises to catalyze revolutions in agri-food systems as well, and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) is already deploying it and looking at its longer-term ramifications.
As FAO Director-General QU Dongyu has said, AI “can have a tremendous positive impact, making agriculture more productive and sustainable”, but care is required to prevent it from introducing unwelcome new economic, social and ethical challenges and risks.
Qu made those remarks in early 2020 while making FAO, along with IBM and Microsoft, one of the first signatories of the Rome Call for AI Ethics, an initiative by the Pontifical Academy for Life to promote a sense of responsibility among organizations, governments, institutions and the private sector to create a future in which digital innovation and technological progress “serve human genius and creativity and not their gradual replacement.”
That call was one of the five most important news events in 2020 on the subject of ethical use of AI technologies, a topic that is rapidly gaining prominence, according to the AI Index Report from the Institute for Human-Centered AI (HAI) of Stanford University.
The constructive proposition engaged by the Holy See, FAO and the other co-signatories, captured attention amid competition from other engaging news topics in the area such as public concerns over facial recognition and over whether language models and algorithms convey bias.
While using AI to optimize agri-food systems can contribute to alleviating hunger – clearly an ethical goal, and FAO is already using AI applications to improve forest monitoring and combat crop pests in vulnerable countries – method matters. As Qu said: “We have to make sure that AI tools are designed, developed and used to be consistent with the universal human rights principles.”
The AI Index report noted that today there is little data on the topic of how ethics in AI is being handled by universities and companies, but that publications on the topic have been increasing noticeably since 2015 and the subject is increasingly present at major industry and academic conferences, which now often ask researchers to submit statements about the broader impacts of their work.
FAO is well placed to contribute significantly, buoyed by its core mandate of eradicating hunger, its experience in helping smallholders in low-income developing countries access the benefits of high-tech solutions and its multilateral status and normative expertise – factors that led Members to choose the Organization as the host for the new International Platform for Digital Food and Agriculture, an inclusive multi-stakeholder forum for identifying and discussing the potential benefits and risks of digitalization on the food and agriculture sectors.
The platform can help countries introduce agri-food system concerns into their national AI strategies.
Artificial intelligence and machine-learning techniques are embedded in FAO products such as the WaPOR portal, which monitors and reports on agriculture water productivity over Africa and the Near East, the Agricultural Stress Index System (ASIS) which scours satellite data for emerging signs of drought, SEPAL, which tracks small-scale change sin forests that can indicate fires or illegal logging or fires, iSharkFin, which allows port inspectors and fish traders to identify shark species from a photograph of a fin, as well as the successful FAMEWS app, which enables farmers to detect Fall Armyworm damage in a timely manner.