Nationwide AI research network launched

Two new institutes to specifically link artificial intelligence to agricultural systems research.

Tim Lundeen, Editor

August 26, 2020

9 Min Read
University of Illinois TerraSentia.jpg
University of Illinois

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food & Agriculture (NIFA) and the National Science Foundation (NSF) announced Aug. 26 that they are establishing seven new artificial intelligence (AI) institutes across the country to accelerate research, expand America's workforce and transform the future of American agriculture.

Advancements in AI research have broad applications that can create economic, health and safety benefits across multiple industries and all levels of education, the agencies said.

This national network of AI research institutes represents the nation's "most significant federal investment" in AI research and workforce development to date and totals $140 million: $20 million to each of five NSF AI institutes and two NIFA AI Institutes, which the agencies said "is just the beginning."

“This major federal investment in next-generation agriculture signals our commitment to keeping American agricultural innovation on the leading edge of global science,” NIFA acting director Parag Chitnis said. “These future-focused centers of innovation will use the latest techniques from all corners of science, including molecular science, engineering and robotics, to seek solutions for myriad challenges facing agriculture, from crop improvement and animal welfare to labor shortages and farm safety.”

By partnering NIFA and NSF with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security's Science & Technology Directorate, the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Federal Highway Administration and U.S. public research universities, these institutes will serve as hubs in a broader nationwide network aimed at improving American competitiveness and transforming key areas of society, the agencies said.

The specific focus areas include:

  • NIFA AI Institute for Next Generation Food Systems. Led by a team at the University of California-Davis (UC-Davis), this institute integrates a holistic view of the food system with AI and bioinformatics to understand biological data and processes, addressing issues of molecular breeding to optimize traits for yield, crop quality and pest/disease resistance; agricultural production, food processing and distribution and nutrition.

  • NIFA AI Institute for Future Agricultural Resilience, Management & Sustainability (AIFARMS). Led by a team at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, this institute will advance AI research in computer vision, machine learning, soft object manipulation and intuitive human/robot interaction to solve major agricultural challenges, including labor shortages, efficiency and welfare in animal agriculture, environmental resilience of crops and the need to safeguard soil health.

  • NSF AI Institute for Research on Trustworthy AI in Weather, Climate & Coastal Oceanography. Led by a team at the University of Oklahoma-Norman, this institute assembles researchers in AI, atmospheric and ocean science and risk communication to develop user-driven trustworthy AI that addresses pressing environmental concerns.

  • NSF AI Institute for Foundations of Machine Learning. Led by a team at the University of Texas-Austin, this institute focuses on major theoretical challenges in AI, including next-generation algorithms for deep learning, neural architecture optimization and efficient robust statistics.

  • NSF AI Institute for Student-AI Teaming. Led by a team at the University of Colorado-Boulder, this institute is developing groundbreaking AI that helps both students and teachers work and learn together more effectively, engagingly and equitably.

  • NSF AI Institute for Molecular Discovery, Synthetic Strategy & Manufacturing (also known as the NSF Molecular Maker Lab Institute). Led by a team at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, this institute focuses on development of new AI-enabled tools and serves as a training ground for the next generation of scientists with combined expertise in chemical synthesis and bioengineering.

  • NSF AI Institute for Artificial Intelligence & Fundamental Interactions. Led by a team at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, this institute incorporates workforce development, digital learning, outreach and knowledge transfer programs to advance physics knowledge.

“The AI institutes being awarded today comprise large, multidisciplinary and multisector collaborations: They bring together consortia of dozens of universities and other organizations, ultimately spanning academia, government and industry,” U.S. chief technology officer Michael Kratsios said. “In effect, over the next five years, some of the best minds in the country will be tackling some of the grandest challenges that we face, both in terms of new AI techniques as well as breakthroughs in fields of science and engineering and sectors of our economy, and along the way, they will nurture the future American workforce in AI research and practice.”


The AIFARMS institute will be led by principal investigator Vikram Adve, the Donald B. Gillies professor of computer science at the University of Illinois Grainger College of Engineering.

“I’m excited and humbled to be leading the AIFARMS Institute. Illinois and our partner institutions are world leaders in the areas of computer science, artificial intelligence and agriculture research, and these strengths are reflected in the breadth and depth of the AIFARMS team,” Adve said. “By fostering close collaborations between these researchers, and by growing and diversifying a workforce skilled in digital agriculture, we have an exciting opportunity to help address some of the most daunting challenges faced by world agriculture today.”

As a multi-department and multi-institutional collaboration, AIFARMS brings together 40 researchers from the University of Illinois, University of Chicago, Donald Danforth Plant Sciences Center, Michigan State University, Tuskegee University and USDA's Agricultural Research Service (ARS) to accelerate AI and promote foundational advances in agriculture.

At AIFARMS, academic scientists and industry partners will come together to address major agricultural challenges such as labor constraints, animal health and welfare, environmental crop resilience and soil health, according to the University of Illinois, whose College of Agricultural, Consumer & Environmental Sciences (ACES) researchers will contribute expertise to leverage big data and new technologies, improve critical plant and livestock traits, optimize economic sustainability and more.

“It’s a tremendous honor to be part of this important and collaborative effort that brings to the forefront the power of agricultural sciences, engineering and innovation,” ACES dean Kim Kidwell said.

AIFARMS will be one of the flagship projects within the Center for Digital Agriculture, founded in 2018 at the University of Illinois and co-directed by Adve and Matthew Hudson, a professor in the department of crop sciences.

The University of Illinois will also house the Molecule Maker Lab Institute, led by Huimin Zhao, a professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering and chemistry.

The Molecule Maker Lab Institute will focus on the development of new AI-enabled tools to accelerate automated chemical synthesis “to advance the discovery and manufacture of novel materials and bioactive compounds,” NSF said.

The goal of the institute is to establish “an open ecosystem of disruptive thinking, education and community engagement powered by state-of-the-art molecular design, synthesis and spectroscopic characterization technologies — all interfaced with AI and a modern cyberinfrastructure,” Zhao said.

Next-generation food systems

UC-Davis was tapped to establish a new institute focused on enabling the next-generation food system through the integration of AI technologies, the university said in an announcement.

The AI Institute for Next Generation Food Systems aims to meet growing demands in the food supply by increasing efficiencies using AI and bioinformatics spanning the entire system — from growing crops through consumption, UC-Davis said. This includes optimizing plant traits for yield, crop quality and disease resistance through advances in molecular breeding, in addition to minimizing resource consumption and waste through development of agriculture-specific AI applications, sensing platforms and robotics.

“The food system is ripe for disruption, with many advances over the past decade paving the way to a transformation,” said Ilias Tagkopoulos, professor in the UC-Davis department of computer science and genome center and director of the new institute. “AI will serve as both the enabling technology and the connective tissue that brings together these elements and catalyzes this transformation to a safer, fairer and more efficient food system for the next generation.”

UC-Davis said the institute has been designed to be inclusive, fostering collaborations to develop open-source AI solutions across the food system. Given food’s fundamental role in human health and well-being, coupled with its far-reaching impacts on the national economy and environment, the institute will bring together more than 40 researchers from six institutions: UC-Davis, University of California-Berkeley, Cornell University, University of Illinois, University of California Division of Agriculture & Natural Resources (UCANR) and ARS.

“As with many of our world’s greatest challenges, addressing the critical needs in our food supply requires extensive collaboration between experts from different disciplines,” UC-Davis vice chancellor for research Prasant Mohapatra said. “The collection of expertise assembled for this new institute brings much hope for transformative advancements to be realized.”

Trustworthy weather prediction

The University of Oklahoma will lead the NSF AI Institute for Research on Trustworthy AI in Weather, Climate & Coastal Oceanography that is being hailed as a “historic milestone in environmental science.”

Amy McGovern, an University of Oklahoma professor with dual appointments in the School of Computer Science in the Gallogly College of Engineering and in the School of Meteorology in the College of Atmospheric & Geographic Sciences, will head the institute.

The institute has collaborators from Colorado State University, University at Albany, University of Washington, North Carolina State University, Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi, Del Mar College (Corpus Christi), National Center for Atmospheric Research, Google, IBM, NVIDIA, Disaster Tech and National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

Retired Navy Rear Adm. Tim Gallaudet, assistant secretary of commerce for oceans and atmosphere and deputy NOAA administrator, noted that the agency's “partnership with this institute will accelerate (progress) to dramatically improve our performance and efficiency in ... severe weather prediction, fisheries management, ocean mapping and exploration and natural resource conservation.”

University of Oklahoma vice president for research and partnerships Tomás Díaz de la Rubia added that the institute will "improve the nation’s understanding of severe weather and ocean phenomena, save lives and property and increase societal resilience to climate change.”

“This institute is a convergent center that will create trustworthy AI for environmental science, revolutionize prediction and understanding of high-impact weather and ocean hazards and benefit society by protecting lives and property,” McGovern said. “Leading experts from AI, atmospheric and ocean science, risk communication and education will work synergistically to develop and test trustworthy AI methods that will transform our understanding and prediction of the environment.”

Looking to the future, NSF also announced its next generation of AI investments, which will include a new collaboration with government and industry partners to provide an anticipated $160 million to fund around eight new AI institutes.

Together, these new institutes will serve as nodes in a broader network, distributed throughout the country, that will spawn new centers of AI leadership and leverage existing centers of excellence while working to make great impacts on addressing societal concerns and needs, NSF said.

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