Fully automated greenhouses run by sophisticated artificial intelligence algorithms are already in operation today. These hi-tech plant factories are controlled by machines, which monitor conditions and adjust everything from fertilization and irrigation to humidity to provide the best environment for cabbages and kale to grow.
Then the hackers hit. They override the AI and order the greenhouse to apply dangerous levels of nitrogen, pesticide and herbicide into the soil. Wastewater is released into the local waterways, fouling the drinking water supply. Or the cyber-terrorists could simply shut down the greenhouses, threatening a city’s food supply.
Far-fetched scenario? Not quite, according to researchers from the University of Cambridge, who published a threat analysis in the journal Nature Machine Intelligence.
“The idea of intelligent machines running farms is not science fiction. Large companies are already pioneering the next generation of autonomous ag-bots and decision support systems that will replace humans in the field,” said Dr. Asaf Tzachor in the University of Cambridge’s Centre for the Study of Existential Risk (CSER), first author of the paper.
“But so far no-one seems to have asked the question ‘are there any risks associated with a rapid deployment of agricultural AI?'” he added.
Such concerns over new technology are not new. When self-driving cars first came onto the horizon, there was much hand-wringing about the potential for hackers to take over the computer-driven cars, deliberately causing vehicles to veer off lanes and cause accidents. The autonomous driving technology was also held up to be a potential jobs killer for the millions of workers who make a living driving vehicles to transport goods and people.
Beyond potential sabotage, AI farming systems and automation hold the promise of relieving farmers from manual labor. Yet, that also holds the potential to displace disadvantaged farm workers who may not be able to find other jobs. The lack of access to AI in poor and developing countries where millions of farmers are engaged in subsistence farming means the rich-poor divide would widen with the adoption of productivity-boosting AI in agriculture.
“AI is being hailed as the way to revolutionize agriculture. As we deploy this technology on a large scale, we should closely consider potential risks, and aim to mitigate those early on in the technology design,” said Dr. Seán Ó hÉigeartaigh, Executive Director of CSER and co-author of the new research.