David Hughes put aside his work studying ant behavior at Penn State University in 2012 to launch PlantVillage, a United Nations-backed initiative that uses smartphones and AI to help farmers from West Africa to Australia adapt to climate change. Initially used to track and assist with plant diseases, the app was rapidly recalibrated in 2020 to assist with a historic locust plague that hit dozens of countries, including Kenya, Ethiopia, and Somalia.
Both the locust app, called eLocust3M, and the original PlantVillage app crowdsource data and user-submitted photos to track pests and plant disease; AI-guided advice and alert systems help prevent their spread. “It’s morally wrong that we live in a world where most AI is being used to get money out of your pocket,” says Hughes. “It’s all about tricking you into watching too much Netflix, getting you a date, getting you food. Why can’t we use it as it was meant to be: to radically transform the livelihoods of millions of people?” Via a partnership with the United Nations, PlantVillage is now used in more than 60 countries around the world, and has been translated into 30 languages.
Here’s how the apps work:
Farmers experiencing crop blight photograph plants and upload the images to PlantVillage, where they are analyzed by AI that diagnoses the issue and delivers detailed instructions for how to treat it. Farmers in surrounding villages are warned about the issue, and sent tips to prevent it.
The app eLocust3m helps track and stop locust swarms. A hired team scours the region on motor scooters, photographing swarms and marking their GPS location. Using AI, the app predicts where locusts will travel next, allowing the government to send out targeted pesticide sprays.
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