Researcher seeking survey respondents on artificial intelligence in ag

Grace Connatser
Wisconsin State Farmer
In this undated photo provided by Google, a person uses a phone to monitor a cow's IDA, or "The Intelligent Dairy Farmer's Assistant," device in a pasture on Seven Oaks Dairy in Waynesboro, Ga. On the cow's neck is the IDA device created by Connecterra. It uses a motion-sensing device attached to a cow'ss neck to transmit its movements to a program driven by artificial intelligence.

One Illinois researcher is looking for farmers in the Midwest to tell her their stories and thoughts of artificial intelligence in the agriculture industry. 

Monika Sziron is a PhD student at Illinois Institute of Technology studying the ethics of AI with a concentration in Midwestern agriculture. A Superior, Wis. native, Sziron hopes to form some of the first tangible research on AI presence in industry technology as it continues to develop, and how it is used on farms big and small.

"If you were to go back to the threshing machine, that revolutionized the way that we thresh wheat and small grains. That used to be something that would bring the entire farming community together," Sziron said. "Technology always has this ability to change not only how we do business and farming and agriculture, but the actual experience of farming and agriculture. That is what has really drawn me to this study."

Sziron's survey, looking for any kind of farmer in the Midwest, asks about experiences both positive and negative with artificial intelligence. It also includes questions on how it's changed your daily life, what ethical concerns people may have and whether courses on the subject should be part of agriculture education.

AI is most often found in precision ag tech to increase efficiency while reducing labor costs. While it's well-studied in other industries, like health care and medicine, Sziron said the research on AI in agriculture is almost nonexistent – she said she noticed a lack of agriculture voices in AI studies, especially on ethics.

AI machines and models are still quite out of reach for most smaller farms, though, Sziron said. As the technology is further studied and refined, it's likely it will become cheaper and more accessible to smaller farms. Sziron said she wants to know the differences between how it's used on large corporate farms and small family farms.

Monika Sziron

"The latest models of combines and everything, of course, are expensive, and I think that the newest models have the most connectivity, the most AI-enabled technology," Sziron said. "How does a ... small farm fit in and play into this? That's something that we've seen throughout Midwestern agriculture history, too, is just the gaps between farm sizes, and the accessibility and technology of machines in general."

While more people are growing to accept advanced technology and use it to transform their lives, Sziron said some are still wary of the implications of accepting that technology. For instance, she said security and privacy, hidden costs like electricity usage and data collection transparency are preventing AI from being fully embedded in the ag industry.

Localization is also important, she said – you can't use an AI program designed in California for a Wisconsin dairy farm. And most of all, human rights concerns are still worrying as the tech continues to grow with more and more abilities.

"That's great that we're bringing awareness to this, but how is this affecting agriculture and farming? Because like I said, there's just not a lot of research that has focused on this specific industry and the Midwest in general," Sziron said. "People like to (say we're) the flyover states or whatnot, but I don't see it that way."

Sziron said people should be learning about AI and its pros and cons now because tech moves fast these days. She explained that a lot of people don't actually know how to define artificial intelligence or recognize it when it's being used. But the fear of the unfamiliar is a good thing, Sziron said, because it informs us of potential problems, which enhances development.

As the survey continues to gather the Midwest farmer experience, Sziron said she hopes the final results will land on the desk of an important policymaker in agriculture so that farmers can be heard. So far, her responses indicate that ethical concerns are across the board, but she expects one or two of them to show up as a popular concern by the end of the survey in April 2022.

"I just really want this industry within the Midwest to have more of a say," Sziron said. "Hopefully, whatever results come up, this survey and research land in the hands of somebody that has a say in policy and a say in regulation, or even just building an ethics code for any technology that's developed for Midwest agriculture."

If you'd like to fill out a mail-in survey, you can email Sziron at msziron@hawk.iit.edu.