Agri-tech companies are teaching robots to be growers

How do you teach a computer what a good strawberry looks like? According to AgShift founder and CEO Miku Jha, whose company is innovating food inspections with deep learning, you do it the same way you train a three year old. “You give them a ping pong ball and an egg, and you keep telling them, ‘this is a ball, this is an egg, this is a ball, this is an egg.’ Both are white, but eventually you figure it out. That’s how our minds are wired.”

Training a strawberry-inspecting AI program follows that same logic: “We take hundreds of images of bruises in a strawberry, and we keep training the model that this is a bruise. ‘Good berry, bad berry, good berry, bad berry.’ That’s it,” she said. Jha was a part of a panel on automation moderated by Forbes associate editor Alex Knapp on Thursday at the 2019 Forbes AgTech Summit in Salinas, California.

The growing intersection between Silicon Valley’s technology and the Salinas Valley’s agriculture hasn’t extended to Silicon Valley’s VC money. Agtech struggles to find investment because it takes longer to grow companies, and also because most investors are “sheep,” Kellerman said. Traditional venture capitalists are opportunistic, following the crowd and chasing the “dumb money.” He argues that agtech companies need VC firms that understand “patient capital,” making a long term investment instead of expecting a quick profit.

A major reason agtech can’t iterate as quickly as software is because companies can’t test their innovations year-round. They’re limited by harvesting periods that last only a few months per year. California, especially the Salinas Valley, is a prime location to counter this problem because the area has low seasonality, said Palomares, who made the 2019 Forbes 30 Under 30 Manufacturing and Industry List for Farmwise. The company uses robots with computer vision and deep learning capabilities to remove weeds with herbicides.

Today’s automated robots likely still aren’t perfect—which can make it a hard sell to growers. “You create a broccoli harvester or a strawberry harvester, it might be 60% or 80% of what a human can do,” Kellerman said. “So, you may have to rethink your business model. If you’re just looking to swap [people] out, it’s not going to happen that way. Technology evolves at an iterative pace.”


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