Alphabet's X lab explores using AI to improve food production

Automation could reduce food shortages and boost crop quality.

Add Alphabet to the growing number of companies hoping that AI will solve food production problems. The Google parent brand's X lab has revealed that it's exploring ways machine learning could improve farming. While X hasn't focused on any specific solutions, lab leader Astro Teller told MIT Technology Review that AI could be combined with drones and other robotics. It could help determine when to harvest crops, or adapt farms in areas where climate change makes forecasting difficult.

You shouldn't expect any tangible results in the near future, although X has typically focused on projects where practical applications are at least on the horizon -- think Project Loon.

Yes, this is yet another instance of a tech giant hoping that AI will cure the world's ills, and there's no certainty that X's idealism will lead to meaningful solutions. With that said, agriculture is one of those categories where AI could be helpful, or even vital. Crop waste is a major issue (20 to 40 percent is lost every year to disease and pests, according to the UN), and even the more productive farms may struggle with low yields or poor quality. AI could not only reduce losses, but improve the volume and quantity. That, in turn, could reduce malnutrition and boost the quality of life for a large swath of the human population.