The University of Arizona’s research lab, CyVerse, recently received $1.3 million to provide expertise and training cyberinfrastructure and training for the National Science Foundation’s Artificial Intelligence Institute. With $1.3 million from USDA-National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA), CyVerse – headquartered at the University of Arizona BIO5 Institute – will also provide the institute with education and engagement opportunities for Native Nations, farmers and community stakeholders to address how technological advances in artificial intelligence (AI) can answer agricultural needs.


Shane Burgess, University of Arizona Vice President for the Division of Agriculture, Life and Veterinary Sciences, and Cooperative Extension said, “Through the efforts of several prominent plant scientists in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, CyVerse began in 2008 as the iPlant Collaborative to advance plant and agricultural data science. It remains a transformational platform for agriculture that powers data science research across a wide range of disciplines, serving Arizona growers and ultimately helping to address the challenge of feeding the world's ever-growing population."


Arizona Farm Bureau CEO Philip Bashaw added, “In order for agriculture to take on the challenge of feeding a growing population with fewer resources, we will need the practical application of cutting-edge technology. We are encouraged to see this continued commitment by the University of Arizona to lead the way in bringing this technology to the field right here in Arizona.”


The Artificial Intelligence Institute for Resilient Agriculture (AIIRA) is one of 11 new National Science Foundation National Artificial Intelligence Research Institutes, expanding upon seven institutes funded in 2020.


"These institutes are hubs for academia, industry and government to accelerate discovery and innovation in AI," said NSF Director Sethuraman Panchanathan. "Inspiring talent and ideas everywhere in this important area will lead to new capabilities that improve our lives, from medicine to entertainment to transportation and cybersecurity, and position us in the vanguard of competitiveness and prosperity."


The institutes are part of a $200 million federal effort to develop hubs for AI research that address national needs such as predicting severe weather, educating students in science and manufacturing new materials.


"These are problems that can't be answered by any individual," said Baskar Ganapathysubramanian, the Joseph C. and Elizabeth A. Anderlik Professor in Engineering at Iowa State University, who will lead the institute. "We need engineers, data scientists, plant scientists, social scientists, farmers, educators and entrepreneurs. AIIRA will bring all this expertise together."


"The University of Arizona's participation in this institute is an expression of our land-grant mission, and it speaks to our commitment to tackling some of the world's most pressing challenges and improving people's lives through innovation and thoughtful collaboration," said the University of Arizona President Robert C. Robbins. "The work of AIIRA also aligns perfectly with our continued focus on the Fourth Industrial Revolution, in which the digital world, including cutting-edge technologies such as artificial intelligence and robotics, converge with the physical and biological worlds."


Applying Precision Agriculture to a Changing Landscape

Modern technologies such as drones and rolling robots are already collecting detailed agricultural data, which can be used to create scientific modeling tools to help address farmers' most pressing questions, such as when to plant or how to allocate fertilizer and irrigation resources while minimizing environmental impact.


The world's largest robotic field scanner, which is mounted on a 30-ton steel gantry moving along 200-meter steel rails over 1.5 acres of energy sorghum at the Maricopa Agricultural Center in Maricopa, Arizona, is an example of precision technology research used to advance technology in agriculture.


AIIRA, the project leaders say, brings together scientists, farmers, industry and government to adopt these technologies and encourage their adoption to help agriculture meet the needs of a growing population and the increasingly climate-challenged planet. "We want to make these methods accessible, affordable, and easily usable by farmers to make productive decisions," said AIIRA investigator Nirav Merchant, CyVerse co-principal investigator and director of UArizona's Data Science Institute. "Every farm is different in its own way, so a one-size-fits-all approach doesn't work. Regardless of the scale of the farm, we want to optimize these technologies for farmers' specific questions." He added, "We have to prepare for our changing climate. There are limits on how much water and resources we will be able to use, but we can use AI to optimize the planting cycles and use of resources to reduce the stress in agriculture."


Providing Customized Training in Data Science

AIIRA will educate students, scientists, business people and farmers to understand and use new digital tools to make better decisions.


To help make the power of AI available to all, the CyVerse Training Team will work closely with The Carpentries – a community initiative to teach software engineering and data science – to develop customized workshops on using AI-powered tools and data to address specific research, community and stakeholder questions.


The training programs will be customized for various audiences, including AIIRA members, students, scientists, political leaders, agricultural stakeholders and Indigenous peoples.

Enhancing Native Nations' Data Sovereignty


Engagement with Native American communities – which have been historically underrepresented and overlooked with regard to agricultural challenges, technological advancements and data rights and ownership – is a key focus of CyVerse's work with AIIRA, said AIIRA investigator Stephanie Carroll, director of the Collaboratory for Indigenous Data Governance and associate director of the UArizona Native Nations Institute.


"We have a strong investment in encouraging Native student interest in data science and STEM careers," said Carroll, who is also an assistant professor of public health. "Indigenous data sovereignty represents an effort to reassert authority over data and research so that Indigenous communities can govern and control the use, access and storage of their own data," she added.


Carroll co-created one of the nation's first classes on Indigenous data sovereignty, taught through the UArizona James E. Rogers College of Law and the Native Nations Institute's Indigenous Governance Program. The class has inspired the creation of other such courses across the country and will be adapted to help the AIIRA initiative reach Native American communities and inform those working with Indigenous data. Carroll and Merchant also plan to engage Indigenous farmers, community leaders and students in workshops designed to determine their agricultural questions and how Indigenous ways of knowing, AI technology and data can be leveraged to address their specific needs.


CyVerse's ultimate role in AIIRA is to integrate the project's many components, both through physical infrastructure and community engagement, Merchant said. "The friction at the boundaries of these complex analyses, training communities, connecting resources – that's where we'll be working," he said.


The University of Arizona is uniquely positioned to participate in AIIRA, said Elizabeth "Betsy" Cantwell, the university's senior vice president for research and innovation. "The collaboration with colleagues at Iowa State University allows us to integrate several of our strengths, both in terms of innovation and public outreach," Cantwell said. "We are home to CyVerse and its cyberinfrastructure expertise. We are the land-grant university, giving us the agriculture perspective as well as partnerships with Arizona's 22 federally recognized tribes. With the acceleration of technology-based applications, the University of Arizona is uniquely positioned to meet real-world agricultural challenges with advanced solutions."


CyVerse is a federation of the University of Arizona, Texas Advanced Computing Center and Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, funded by National Science Foundation award numbers DBI-0735191, DBI-1265383 and DBI-1743442.


AIIRA is led by Iowa State University with collaborators from Carnegie Melon University, New York University, the University of Arizona, the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, George Mason University, the University of Missouri and the Iowa Soybean Association. The National AI Research Institutes are funded at a combined $220 million and led by the NSF, in partnership with the USDA-NIFA, U.S. Department of Homeland Security, Google, Amazon, Intel and Accenture.