Caleb Harper and Risto Miikkulainen were on a mission to grow basil: lots of it, fast, in an industrial environment—and without compromising the herb’s sweet-but-savory flavor.
So they did. The two scientists—Harper is a research scientist at MIT’s Media Lab, Miikkulainen is a professor of computer science at the University of Texas at Austin—and their team hauled a bunch of shipping containers into a warehouse in Middleton, Massachusetts. They fitted the containers with automated lights, air conditioners, and plumbing, then hooked them up to a computer control system running sophisticated A.I. algorithms that the team wrote.
In April, Harper and Miikkulainen published the results of their experiment in PLOS One, chronicling how they used A.I. to make what could be the world’s first, smartest batch of basil.
Why basil and not some other plant? “Basil was chosen as the model organism because it has a fast growth cycle (five weeks), and because the outcome can be readily measured in terms of fresh weight (quantity) and chemical analysis of flavor,” Harper and Miikkulainen told The Daily Beast.
The algorithms sifted through millions of possible combinations of light, temperature, and humidity in order to find the best possible conditions for growing basil (the scientists jokingly called the A.I.-optimized basil setups “plant computers”).
The goal was to duplicate—and improve upon—the kind of industrial farming setups that are becoming increasingly popular in crowded countries with limited arable land, like Japan.
Using A.I. in this kind of farming could help produce more food using fewer resources and without sacrificing quality, Miikkulainen told The Daily Beast.
“Eventually these methods could lead to transforming agriculture,” Miikkulainen told The Daily Beast. “Food and other agricultural products can be grown where they are consumed, their quality and quantity can be improved and cost reduced.”
With the help of their plant computers, Harper and Miikkulainen’s team made a surprise discovery: Basil actually responded well to round-the-clock light, the type you might experience during summers in the Arctic.
Whereas some food plants grow steadily but lose flavor under 24-hour light, the basil in the experiment actually benefited from a virtual endless day. Skipping nighttime “induces the most flavor molecule production in basil,” Harper and Miikkulainen and their team found.
“You couldn’t have discovered this any other way,” John de la Parra, a researcher on Harper and Miikkulainen’s team, said in an MIT release. “You had to have artificial circumstances in order to discover that.”
A little help from A.I. can do more than just make agriculture more efficient. It also could help farmers to diversify their crops and make them more resilient in the face of environmental challenges such as climate change, Pat Mooney, an agriculture expert with the International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems, told The Daily Beast.