New AI Institute Awarded to UC Merced Strengthens Agricultural Systems Research and Workforce Capabilities

Farm field wide shot

Artificial Intelligence, better known as AI, is changing how decisions are made.

AI is an approach to harnessing the power of massive data and computational algorithms to “learn” about complex systems and their behavior – and it is the basis of digital transformation across industries. In the new $20M institute funded by USDA, AI will digitally transform how agriculture works as a complex system.

In California’s $50 billion dollar agriculture sector, injecting AI into high-value and specialty crop production will require changes at every level of production, especially the development of a digitally skilled workforce. Established through $20M of funding from the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture, this new “USDA-NIFA Institute for Agricultural AI for Transforming Workforce and Decision Support” will integrate AI into on-farm decisions, from labor to long-term planning.

Known as AgAID, the multi-university institute will focus on human-centered and iterative approaches to specialty crop production, like almonds, apples, and grapes, while creating novel technology, training, and networks for industry adopters.

Prof. Viers

“Human insights are the key to the intelligence in AI, especially in agriculture where the complexities of decision making go beyond when and where to harvest. This institute will allow us to couple human insights with massive real time data streams to make better and more timely decisions that will improve our ability to produce food, weather climatic shocks, and minimize impacts to the environment,” said Professor Joshua Viers, UC Merced lead for the award and campus director of the Center for Information Technology Research in the Interest of Society and the Banatao Institute (CITRIS). “By building on a decade of collaboration with California’s ag-tech leaders, UC Merced is proud to be an engine for innovation and economic growth in the Valley and more importantly to be training the next generation of ag-tech innovators. We are building the future in the heart of California.”

Prof. Medellín-Azuara
Prof. Ehsani
Prof. Sun

Mirroring the main industry of the Central Valley, this award builds on UC Merced’s emergent strength in engineering for agriculture, featuring five School of Engineering faculty. In addition to CITRIS’s Viers, Professor Josué Medellín-Azuara will lead water modeling and broadening impacts for an inclusive program, and professors Reza Ehsani and Jian-Qiao Sun will contribute to the engineering design components, expanding on the success of their inventions of smart devices for yield monitoring and harvesting.

“AI is an enabling technology that can help us develop the next generation of intelligent farm equipment and implements. These machines could potentially be more efficient, easier to operate and could reduce production costs,” Ehsani said.

Prof. Abatzoglou

John Abatzoglou, a climatologist and professor of Management of Complex Systems, will bring climate modeling into a format for agricultural decision-making, building on extensive experience with Pacific Northwest agricultural systems. “AgAID will help develop tech-based solutions for ameliorating the cascading impacts of water scarcity in agricultural systems we’ve experienced recently and will continue to face,” said Abatzoglou.

“AgAID is the digital relay between large-scale water resources management and forecasting and on-farm agricultural water use decisions,” added Medellín-Azuara. “Advancing integration of AI into ag and water system decision making will be particularly important given future extreme climate events, and in turn, will increase the resilience of our surrounding communities.”

In partnership with other funding agencies like USDA, NSF has made a $220 million investment in AI-based collaborations, expanding on the first round of seven AI Institutes funded in 2020. The investment forms a collaboration across the Western US, with Washington State University as the lead campus, Oregon State University and University of California, Merced collaborating with industry partners IBM Research and Other academic partners in AgAID, University of Virginia, Carnegie Mellon University, Kansas State University, and minority-serving institutions Heritage University and Wenatchee Valley College, will collaborate as a transdisciplinary team to create a holistic approach to technological innovation, resource management and workforce development.

Ananth Kalyanaraman, a professor of computer science and the AgAID Institute director, has high hopes for the nascent program. “We aim to partner human knowledge with AI tools in a way that amplifies the end outcomes where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.”

In the world—affected by climate change—of 10 billion people, human-centered technology and agriculture may be the most important connection we can create.

To learn more:

Leigh Bernacchi, Ph.D. is the program director of CITRIS, a social scientist and passionate educator who will work with Jessica Black of Heritage University and Medellín-Azuara on AgAID’s broadening participation, ensuring that the project will train diverse students for careers that have yet to exist.