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AI can solve world hunger, but innovation narrative has to change

By Morag Hobbs (People's Daily Online)    11:40, November 03, 2018

A dancing robot shows off its moves during the 20th National Robot and Artificial Intelligence Competition in Guangdong. (People's Daily Online/Hu Weihang)

Artificial Intelligence, or AI, has become a buzzword used by what seems like every new startup, surrounding us with claims that they can change the world using robotics and smart technology. The only problem is that many of the solutions currently being sold are not for real or current issues, but for elaborate concepts that the average person won’t use. David Li, Executive Director of Shenzhen Open Innovation Lab (SZOIL) says that this narrative has to change, and uses Africa as a prime example.

“African entrepreneurs have real problems they need to solve, so they don’t have time to make their story ‘I invented X and X is going to change the world’, even though nobody needs it. On the opposite side, you have people taking existing technology and integrating it into a real solution.”

Food security is one of the biggest challenges of our time. In 2015, around 800 million people had to endure starvation or malnutrition. Two-thirds of the world's hungry live in Asia, but Sub-Saharan Africa is the continent where that number is the highest, with one in four Africans undernourished. Implementing technology to end malnutrition in Africa, therefore, is a crucial task.

Robocop vs. the tractor

For the past year, SZOIL, a company based in southern China’s Shenzhen, has been shifting its focus to work closely with partners in Africa, mainly in Ghana, Ethiopia and Nigeria. The team is focused on robotics and AI in three major areas – transportation, agriculture and aquaculture.

Li explains that the current conversation encircling innovation leads many entrepreneurs in search of the unicorn; to find or create new technology. However, he says, if we change the narrative surrounding new technology, we can take something existing and find the right use for it. Simply put, entrepreneurs don’t have to be unique or special.

The way we speak about AI needs to change, too. Li explains, “When people speak about robots it’s always as this new species, a conscious being that can function on its own, but this isn’t a reality. Specifically, on the agricultural side, we’re looking at smart agricultural equipment like tractors. A lot of the time, when people discuss robots, they aren’t picturing a tractor. A robot is just a piece of machinery. It's no different from any other tool.”

“The first thing we need to do is make sure people are thinking about robots as tools; something they can control and own. By personifying robots, we are excluding that real conversation. A robot is not going to come and take my job.”

Li explains that it’s far more likely that individuals will own robots. For example, SZOIL has developed cooperations with organisations such as Open Source Ecology, so that anywhere in the world people can download a blueprint and build their own machinery. The Open Source tractor, which is being developed in Shenzhen, is currently in its early stages, with testing in Ghana set for next March, and the autonomous version going online later in the year.

Solving world hunger, one smallholder farm at a time

A UN FAO study released at the end of 2014 stated, much to everyone’s surprise, that in both developed and developing countries, more than 500 million, or nine out of ten, farms are managed by families; making family farms the predominant form of agriculture. They not only produce about 80 percent of the world’s food but also make up about 70 – 80 percent of farmland. So, small-time farmers can download a blueprint for autonomous farm equipment from China – but how will that help a crisis as enormous as world hunger?

Li explains that the utilisation of smallholder farms is only at about 70 percent, and the number one reason cited is labour - they just don’t have enough people. He explains, “This is where autonomous machinery can start changing the picture.”

With the help of smart technology, smallholder farms can utilise more of their land and produce more food without the need for extra labour. For example, reports from China Daily this year indicated that a subsidiary of Eagle Brother Co Ltd based in Wuhan, Hubei province, have already implemented drones to help fertilize crops. Farmers can now customize services by providing information on crop types, farm sizes and kinds of pesticides they need.

Using drones to spread pesticides is believed to be more efficient and safer than the conventional method of crop spraying, cutting down water consumption by 90 percent, pesticide volume by 40 percent and boosting productivity by 50 times.

A recent UN report explained that we need to expand our food production by 70 percent by 2050 to support the world’s growing population. However, Li suggests if we look at the food crisis as more of a distribution problem, it’s more manageable. “One-third of the food we produce is wasted – in the developed country it’s wasted on the table, in the developing world it's wasted in storage."

SZOIL currently works with teams in Africa who are making internet connected storage sensors so that people can monitor moisture and temperature. Whenever produce starts to go bad, the producer will get a notification. As Li says, "A simple device like that can save grain and food in storage. We already have the technology."

Belt and Road as the infrastructural link

Although smart technology may provide a link to ending agricultural concerns to those with access, if you are an entrepreneur in Ethiopia, where, according to, only 15 percent of the population had access to the internet by the end of 2017, this becomes the next hurdle.

However, as China continues to deliver on the Belt and Road, infrastructure is developing, fast. As soon as the primary infrastructure is in place, transportation becomes the only issue left. Li notes, “The global supply chain is more function than we think. In the middle of nowhere in Ethiopia, you can still get a can of coke – that pretty much shows the reach of the global supply chain. It’s there; we just need to put everything together.”

According to the African Union (AU), internet connectivity in Africa has almost tripled in the past five years, and although the internet rate in Ethiopia is low, it’s up nearly 10 percent since 2015, which shows the rate of how things in developing countries are changing. China is helping with this change. For example, YOFC, a company based in Wuhan, Hubei province, that specializes in the production and sale of fiber-optics and cables, has already laid fiber-optics for African countries such as Ethiopia, South Africa and Kenya, according to China Daily.

With higher connectivity, infrastructure links and AI companies changing tact to apply existing technology to solve problems, we have a genuine possibility of resolving key global issues in the not-too-distant future.

(For the latest China news, Please follow People's Daily on Twitter and Facebook)(Web editor: Hongyu, Bianji)

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