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‘Mineral’ is X’s ‘computational agriculture’ moonshot focused on increased, sustainable food production

Back in 2018, Alphabet’s moonshot division revealed that it’s looking into how machine learning could be applied to crop production. X today officially announced that its computational agriculture project is called “Mineral.”

Last March, X shared more details about its “early stage project focused on sustainable food production.” It coined the term “computational agriculture” to describe how “some of the challenges farmers face today could be helped with a mix of better data, machine learning, and yet-to-be developed technologies.” The research division previously looked at vertical farming but ended that project after not being able to grow stable crops.

Similarly, new computing techniques could help farmers find opportunities in their operations to reduce their use of harmful chemicals or make better decisions about crop-threatening issues like pests, diseases or drought.

X hopes that “better tools will enable the agriculture industry to transform how food is grown.” There is a pressing need for increased food production as the population grows. Meanwhile, climate change is disrupting that supply and might make things more difficult moving forward.

By combining data collected from the field, like plant height, leaf area and fruit size, with environmental factors like soil health and the weather, Mineral’s software tools can help breeders understand and predict how different varieties of plants respond to their environments. By mapping and imaging plants in the field, growers can troubleshoot and treat individual plants instead of entire fields, reducing both their costs and environmental impact. Tracking how the plants are growing over time can help growers predict the size and yield of their crop, enabling them to make better yield projections.

So far, the team has been “developing and testing a range of software and hardware prototypes based on breakthroughs in artificial intelligence, simulation, sensors, robotics and more.” This includes a roving “Plant buggy” that’s deployed in fields to collect “plant-level insights.” 

Powered by solar panels, there are multiple configurations to account for different plants. There is GPS with “sophisticated cameras and machine perception tools inside the buggy can identify issues in the field and analyze plant traits.”

Today’s announcement sees this X project get a new name: Mineral.

We choose this name as an homage to the essential role minerals play in sustaining life on Earth. Minerals are the invisible links in our food chain, connecting us, plants, and soil. Minerals such as zinc, iron, and magnesium are essential to our health, but they can’t be synthesized by the human body. So, instead, we get these essential minerals by eating plants or by eating animals that eat plants. The plants absorb minerals through their roots as mineral ions dissolved in the soil water. Those minerals had been released by bacteria and fungi that had weathered rocks. It’s a staggeringly complex ecosystem.

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Avatar for Abner Li Abner Li

Editor-in-chief. Interested in the minutiae of Google and Alphabet. Tips/talk: