Global Hunger Is Rising, Artificial Intelligence Can Help

Despite a global abundance of food, a United Nations report says 815 million people, 11 percent of the world’s population, went hungry in 2016. That number seems to be rising.

Poverty is not the only reason, however, people are experiencing food insecurity.

“Increasingly we’re also seeing hunger caused by the displacement related to conflict, natural disaster as well, but particularly there’s been an uptick in the number of people displaced in the world,” said Robert Opp, director of Innovation and Change Management at the United Nations World Food Program.

Humanitarian organizations are turning to new technologies such as AI, or artificial intelligence, to fight global food insecurity.

WATCH: Global Hunger Is Rising — Artificial Intelligence Can Help

“What AI offers us right now, is an ability to augment human capacity. So, we’re not talking about replacing human beings and things. We’re talking about doing more things and doing them better than we could by just human capacity alone,” Opp said.

Analyze data, get it to farmers

Artificial intelligence can analyze large amounts of data to locate areas affected by conflict and natural disasters and assist farmers in developing countries. The data can then be accessed by farmers from their smartphones.

“The average smartphone that exists in the world today is more powerful than the entire Apollo space program 50 years ago. So just imagine a farmer in Africa who has a smartphone has much more computing power than the entire Apollo space program,” said Pranav Khaitan, engineering lead at Google AI.

“When you take your special data and soil mapping data and use AI to do the analysis, you can send me the information. So in a nutshell, you can help me [know] when to plant, what to plant, how to plant,” said Uyi Stewart, director of Strategy Data and Analytics in Global Development of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

“When you start combining technologies, AI, robotics, sensors, that’s when we see magic start to happen on farms for production, to increase crop yields,” said Zenia Tata, vice president for Global Impact Strategy at XPRIZE, an organization that creates incentivized competitions so innovative ideas and technologies can be developed to benefit humanity.

“It all comes down to developing these techniques and making it available to these farmers and people on the ground,” Khaitan said.

Breaking down barriers

However, the developing world is often the last to get new technologies.

As Stewart said, “815 million people are hungry and I can bet you that nearly 814 million out of the 815 million do not have a smartphone.”

Even when the technology is available, other barriers still exist.

“A lot of these people that we talked about that are hungry, they don’t speak English, so when we get insights out of this technology how are we going to pass it onto them?” Stewart said.

While it may take time for new technologies to reach the developing world, many hope such advances will ultimately trickle-down to farmers in regions that face food insecurity.

“You’ve invented the technology. The big investments have gone in. Now you’re modifying it, which brings the cost down as well,” said Teddy Bekele, vice president of Ag Technology at U.S.-based agribusiness and food company Land O’Lakes.

“So, I think three to four years maybe we’ll have some of the things we have here to be used there [in the developing world] as well,” Bekele predicted.

Those who work in humanitarian organizations said entrepreneurs must look outside their own countries to adapt the new technologies to combat global hunger, or come up with a private, public model. Farmers will need the tools and training so they can harness the power of artificial intelligence to help feed the hungry in the developing world.

This story was written by Elizabeth Lee​.

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