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Can IoT Help End World Hunger? HPE and WEF Think So.

The prospect of the Internet of Things helping end world hunger may sound like a lofty goal, but HPE and the World Economic Forum are creating a step-by-step plan to make it happen.

There are a lot of entrepreneurs and technologists in Silicon Valley who talk about changing the world. But not many of them talk earnestly about goals as audacious-sounding as ending world hunger by 2030. Hewlett Packard Enterprise and the World Economic Forum, however, are doing just that, and are looking for partners and technologies to help end world hunger in the first of a series of grand challenges dedicated to tackling societal challenges in financial services, medical research, personal health and manufacturing.

“Our core purpose really is to advance the way we live and work,” said Mark Potter, HPE chief technology officer and director of Hewlett Packard Labs. “I think that it's all about our DNA.” Hewlett-Packard and Silicon Valley forefathers Bill Hewlett and David Packard “were always thinking about that” principle from the company’s earliest days, when they founded the company in a garage nearly 80 years ago. The company’s focus shouldn’t solely be on building new products, but also on “positively impacting communities,” Potter said.

While having a goal to end world hunger may sound bold, the earth’s population faces uncertain prospects of feeding itself in coming decades. Already, there are some 800 million people who are chronically undernourished and another 2 billion who are micronutrient deficient. In addition, there are increasing rates of drought and the United Nation’ projection that the world’s population will hit 8.5 billion by 2030 and nearly 10 billion by 2050, which would require farmers to produce 70 percent more food than is presently consumed, according to the World Economic Forum’s projections. “The way I look at it is [...] shame on us if we don't take this challenge and make very good progress,” Potter said. “We don’t have the mindset of having one magic thing as a goal. We’ll have a series of goals. We’re not 100 percent sure what those goals will be right now, but we know we're headed in the right direction of bringing government, industry and academia together to think about it.” One of the World Economic Forum’s chief talents here is playing matchmaker, finding relevant organizations who share the aim to transform agriculture. The organization also worked with McKinsey to consider the role of technology innovation in accelerating food systems transformation.”

Already, Purdue University’s College of Agriculture is a partner in the project and has worked jointly with HPE on wireless implementations and research projects involving IoT sensors, and potentially down the road, emerging technologies like autonomous tractors, robotics and drones. 

Purdue has long been a strategic partner for HPE, and researchers from its agricultural department gave HPE a challenge of creating a broader mission focused on economic development, job creation and helping commercialize promising agricultural research related to IoT and artificial intelligence. “We sent a team down to the university and talked to about 50 researchers and realized in discussing with them their challenges around research, agriculture and engineering. We saw we had something to offer. We could help them deploy technology solutions, particularly in IoT, and accelerate their research findings,” said Janice Zdankus, vice president at HPE who works closely with Purdue on their agriculture research. The two organizations launched a proof of concept dedicated to bringing IoT into agriculture and sharing the research with farmers in the United States and internationally. “And, from there, you know, we realized that this had greater potential than just a proof of concept,” Zdankus said.

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When asked which facets of the Internet of Things Purdue and HPE are jointly exploring, Zdankus answered there are a variety of such projects underway. The digital infrastructure HPE has implemented currently enables Purdue’s farm to generate and process 113 terabytes of data per week. “We’ve onboarded [several] different research use cases and we've got a long queue of use cases behind it,” she said. Current research projects include investigating how weather conditions affect the development of crops and water runoff, hyperspectral imaging to gauge chlorophyll levels and projects involving gene editing (CRISPR) to create more nutritious food. “And then when you think about livestock and poultry, there are also IoT use cases around environment monitoring, and animal livestock health monitoring, which allows very quick alerts and understanding of when antibiotics might be needed, as opposed to blanket sharing of antibiotics across herds or poultry farms,” Zdankus said.

Purdue UniversityPurdue’s PhenoRover is a mobile, ground-based vehicle used for phenotyping. It has an IoT sensor package that can measure plant traits in a large number of research plots in a single day. The PhenoRover roams throughout research plots, using remote sensing and capturing real-time field data to predict and measure variation in crop performance.

Purdue’s PhenoRover is a mobile, ground-based vehicle used for phenotyping. It has an IoT sensor package that can measure plant traits in a large number of research plots in a single day. The PhenoRover roams throughout research plots, using remote sensing and capturing real-time field data to predict and measure variation in crop performance.

As farming becomes more data-driven, data science disciplines such as machine learning and deep learning will become more important to farmers, Potter said. “We're hopefully going to be able to make farming much more efficient across the globe — not only for the big farmers but for the small mom and pop farms, as well.”

The coalition of partners also can explore potential unintended consequences of technological advances in agriculture that could relate to government and economic policies, concerns around health and safety, and how the projects are applied to different countries and populations worldwide. “Those are all [themes] that have to be thought about in advance and addressed as part of great innovations,” Zdankus said.

There are also unintended positive outcomes that could result from cutting world hunger. “If you look at any society that spends less population energy and focus on just trying to sustain itself, such a culture tends to advance more rapidly,” Potter said. “They can raise the standard of living. When you think [about the prospect of having] 10 billion people on the planet earth, we also have to think about this as an opportunity to allow everyone to raise the standard of living.”

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