Q&A: Microsoft looking for local players to expand AI agriculture program

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Onlinekhabar, San Francisco

Photo: Derrick Louie

Photo: Derrick Louie

Claudia Roessler is the Director of Industry Solutions and Strategic Business Development for Agriculture at Microsoft. She is an expert on how information technology can be used in farming and food production. Onlinekhabar’s Abhaya Raj Joshi caught up with Roessler on the sidelines of the Global Climate Action Summit in San Francisco last month. Here are some excerpts from their interview.

Could you tell us what Microsoft's AI for Earth program is all about?

The idea for AI for Earth is to help with the initiatives, either around agriculture, sustainability, biodiversity or climate. We truly think that artificial intelligence plays an important role in helping with these issues.

One of the programs that has come out of AI for Earth is ‘Farm Beats’. It uses image data from drones and satellites and compares it with sensor data from the farm. This helps us predict farm conditions and significantly reduces the cost that is needed to get this data from the farm.

There are around 100 projects on around across the world where many universities and research organisations are taking part. We want to involve more countries.

Could you tell us about some applications that you have recently launched in India? How do you plan to build in South Asia?

We have a team in India that is focused on agriculture. It looks into different kinds of ways to [do] precision farming. 

The Farmbox app will help farmers to exchange information. It will give information about the farmers’ location and also know what they grow. It will give people an idea about the local weather and risks about diseases based on their location. It also gives pro-active recommendations about how to treat the farm.

We at Microsoft look for companies that have expertise in this space and work as a medium for an interface between farmers and technology. We don’t want to limit ourselves on being an advisor to farmers. This is a reason why we partner with companies which are experts at what they do. We look at commercial players that have the capacity to help farmers scale up.

We hope we can help with better data collection with the help of sensors and images and help make it more accessible. We can also help with data pairing because a lot of data companies are worried about sharing data with another company that might be their competition in the future. But we want to create a neutral ground where companies can come together and run analytics on our aggregated data which would benefit both companies.

Any plans to start this in Nepal?

We are just starting and are open to going to different countries provided we find local players willing to work with us. We need someone who understands the local market and someone who has an interest in the local market. Only after that can we come up with initiatives to venture into countries like Nepal. If we have the World Business Council on board it would help us run a lot of local projects because they have many firms across which they could be interested in what we do.

What are the challenges to implementing your program in South Asia?

The first and the most important challenge is to find the right partner to work with. We started our work in America itself because we knew the market very well and the same is the case with India where we found a partner who knew the market there as well. It’s a matter of consolidating learning from those countries that can build local expertise, and that means working with our local teams in those countries that can participate in our program. Unless you visit the countries it’s really hard to understand specific challenges.

Will this development help communities in the mountains be resilient to climate change?

We first need to understand the challenges we need to overcome in the mountains because moving around there is quite hard. We are working on how to get our product there. It’s quite fascinating that we are using modern drones to help farmers. We are looking at different measures to solve these problems in different ways.

How does your program fit in with the bigger picture of climate change? 

[Climate change] is at the heart, and one thing I can mention is whatever we develop in AI for Earth, the idea is to not just isolate this to universities but we want to share this intelligence with the rest of the community. So technically, if there is no project or initiative running in one country, you can go to the ones that are already out there and there might be something that is relevant to your country. It is almost like a cloud source research and intelligence connection.

Microsoft is a commercial entity and has shareholders to answer to, so are you looking at the revenue stream that you can get from these kinds of projects?

Part of the company is working to empower various organisations around the world. We do a lot of things that do not necessarily lead to revenue in the first place. We do have an agenda which says that a commercial business needs to be healthy and the agenda also helps companies to be commercially successful.

But there is a sustainability issue. We have one team that is totally focused on sustainability. We are carbon neutral and share this with other companies to inform them about the importance of reducing carbon. We were able to reduce the energy cost of our data center by 50 percent. We share how to do this and share it with companies because we don’t want to keep it to ourselves as we want to give it back to the community.

And then there is that accessibility issue. We have a whole team that’s only looking into how can we make technology assessable in areas where it’s not there.

This story was supported by the 2018 Climate Change Media Partnership, a collaboration between Internews’ Earth Journalism Network and the Stanley Foundation.