Abu Dhabi is investing $100 million in indoor farming / Humans + Tech - #62

+ In India, smartphones and cheap data are giving women a voice + Insecure wheels: Police turn to car data to destroy suspects' alibis + Five ways to make AI a greater force for good in 2021


I hope you’ve settled in to the new year well. Here are the interesting articles I came across this week.

Abu Dhabi is investing $100 million in indoor farming as it tries to become more resilient

In Issue #50 of Humans + Tech, I linked to an article about Singapore investing in vertical farming to become more self-sustaining and improve its food security. Singapore’s problem is that they have limited agricultural land. In the UAE, most of the land is not arable.

The UAE imports 80% of its food. Realising that they need to be more resilient, the government launched a $272 million program to support agritech. They are investing $100 million of that immediately into four agritech companies [Adele Peters, Fast Company].

  • Madar Farms, a startup that is building an indoor tomato farm.

  • Aerofarms, a New Jersey-based vertical farming company that is building a massive new R&D centre.

  • RDI, a startup developing a new irrigation system that makes it possible to grow plants in sandy soil.

  • RNZ, a startup that develops fertilizers that make it possible to grow more food with fewer resources.

For traditional farming, researchers and scientists have focused on making plants more drought and pest resistant. But with indoor farming, they can focus more on making the food more nutritious and tasty.

Aerofarms CEO David Rosenberg, on the new research centre they are building in the UAE:

More than 60 engineers and scientists will study plant science and automation at the new center. “We want to grow more plants, know how to grow better, know how to grow with lower capital cost and operating costs,” Rosenberg says. “That all stems from an ability to understand plants.” By growing in a controlled environment, he says, it’s easier to understand the variables that affect factors like growth rate, nutrition, and taste. In the past, the company has focused mostly on environmental factors, such as the right “light recipe” or temperature to make plants grow well. Now it will also study breeding. “Most seed breeders work to optimize drought resistance, or pest resistance,” he says. “Here, because it’s fully controlled, we get to say, you know what, let’s focus on taste, texture, yield, nutrition.”

In India, smartphones and cheap data are giving women a voice

Around 200 million women in India are illiterate. But cheap smartphones and cheap data are now giving them access to information, ways to build networks and participate in the marketplace. Through voice memo features and image sharing apps, they can communicate and run businesses without knowing how to read or write.

Mallika, an activist, working to conserve her tribe’s forest lands is illiterate. She uses voice commands to browse for videos, and photographs and voice memos to communicate with others [Yasaswini Sampathkumar, WIRED].

Mallika is part of a WhatsApp group where she shares videos and photographs of the forest with local journalists. Illegal logging is a persistent problem. “Sometimes teak or sandalwood trees go missing,” she says. “I take pictures and compare them to older photographs.” She shares the photos with rangers and forest officials. In case of a confrontation, “my husband videotapes the skirmish to protect me. We send the video along with a voice message to the journalists’ group.” She also watches videos of activists in other parts of India.

Since 2015 the percentage of women internet users in rural India has increased from 10% to 30%. Google, Intel, Facebook and Tata Trusts are all running programs to train rural women on using smartphones. Pinky Katariya, a lady in her late 30s in a small village called Jind, in New Delhi's outskirts, who joined the program, has started her own business.

Today, her life looks different. “I look for high-quality cloth in the market. I look up new trends on YouTube and learn to stitch different designs,” she says. Her clothes sell at a premium. “In the village, I would earn about 200 rupees (less than $3) per dress. In the market, my designs sell for 450 to 750 rupees ($6 to $10),” she says.

In April, during the pandemic-induced lockdown, Katariya created a WhatsApp group of friends and acquaintances. “If I saw an interesting video, I would share it with the group and take preorders,” she said. Katariya created a visual catalogue and built inventory in anticipation of a future uptick in demand, especially towards the end of the year. “Now, with the festival season, my business is picking up again,” she says. Being internet savvy has given her both credibility and a larger social network in Jind. “If anyone who doesn’t have a phone needs to look something up, they come to me,” she says.

Insecure wheels: Police turn to car data to destroy suspects' alibis

Modern cars with sensors, computers, internet communications, GPS, accelerometers, and cameras harvest a ton of data on their owners and users. In Michigan, police spent two years investigating the death of Ronald French without any luck until one detective, who had heard about vehicle forensics—extracting data from onboard computers in a car—investigated French’s car which was stolen around the time he vanished. The data from the car that included recordings from the hands-free system at the time of French’s murder led them to Joshua Wessel. They charged him with French’s murder. He is currently awaiting trial [Olivia Solon, NBC News].

In recent years, investigators have realized that automobiles — particularly newer models — can be treasure troves of digital evidence. Their onboard computers generate and store data that can be used to reconstruct where a vehicle has been and what its passengers were doing. They reveal everything from location, speed and acceleration to when doors were opened and closed, whether texts and calls were made while the cellphone was plugged into the infotainment system, as well as voice commands and web histories.

Like any technology, it can be used for both good and bad. While helping police track down criminals is useful, the amount of data collected is a big privacy risk and has been misused. Privacy activists warn that safeguards need to be put in place to protect consumers.

In Australia, a man used the app for his ex-girlfriend’s high-tech Land Rover to get live updates on her movements and even allowed him to remotely start and stop her vehicle and control the car’s windows.

"These crimes have made me feel unsafe," the victim told the court, according to ABC News Australia, which named neither the victim nor the accused. "Made me fear the technology I once embraced and left me with a deep distrust of the cybersecurity protections and laws currently in place, now I know they can be exploited."

Five ways to make AI a greater force for good in 2021

As AI starts to embed itself more and more in our lives and activities, the need to use AI as a force for good is more than ever. 2020 has revealed the many AI shortcomings from bias to facial recognition errors, workplace surveillance, student monitoring and evaluation, and various ethical issues around AI implementation. Karen Hao, writing for MIT Technology Review, has highlighted five ways AI can become a force for good in 2021 [Karen Hao, MIT Technology Review].

  1. Reduce corporate influence in research

  2. Refocus on common-sense understanding

  3. Empower marginalized researchers

  4. Center the perspectives of impacted communities

  5. Codify guard rails into regulation

It’s a very well thought out piece, with numerous examples and details for each point. I recommend clicking through and reading it in detail.

Quote of the week

“We are moving in a direction where more sensors and cameras will be required inside the car for driver or occupant monitoring and on the outside for automated vehicles. Car manufacturers need to focus on privacy by design.”

—Chelsey Colbert, policy counsel at the Future of Privacy Forum, a data privacy think tank, from the article, Insecure wheels: Police turn to car data to destroy suspects' alibis [NBC News]

I wish you a brilliant day ahead :)