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Got AI? Connected Cows, Artificial Intelligence, Your Milk

'Cow Fitbits' and artificial intelligence are coming to the dairy farm, but some farmers aren't impressed.

Cows with their 'FitBits' that control Ida
Cows with their "FitBits" that control Ida
Drew Harwell

WAYNESBORO In the two months since Richard Watson strapped 200 remote-control-sized transmitters around his cows' necks, an artificial-intelligence system named Ida has pinged his phone with helpful alerts: when his cows are chewing the cud, when they're feeling sick, when they're ready for insemination.

"There may be 10 animals out there that have a real problem, but could you pick them?" he said one morning, standing among a grazing herd of dairy cattle wearing what he calls "cow Fitbits."

But on the neighboring pastures here in rural Georgia, other farmers say they aren't that impressed. When a cow's in heat, they know she'll start getting mounted by her bovine sisters, so they smear paint on the cows' backsides and then just look for the incriminating smudge. No fancy AI required.

"I can spot a cow across a room that don't feel great just by looking in her eyes," said Mark Rodgers, a fourth-generation dairy farmer in Dearing, Georgia, whose dad still drives a tractor at 82. "The good Lord said, "This is what you can do." I can't draw, paint or anything else, but I can watch cows."

Sophisticated AI technologies are helping reinvent how Americans work, offering powerful software that can read and react to mountains of data and save them time and stress along the way.

But its rollout is also sparking tensions in workplaces as humble and old-fashioned as the dairy farm. That down-home resistance raises a question farmers might be tackling before much of the rest of the workforce: Can new technology ever beat old intuition — even when it comes to a bunch of cows?

No fancy AI required.

The AI that Watson's farm uses - called Ida, for "The Intelligent Dairy Farmer's Assistant" - tracks his cows' tiniest movements through their collars and then graphs and dissects them en masse. Those "real-time cattle analytics' are then used by the AI to assess diet and movement and predict concerning health issues, such as lameness or udder infections.

As silly as this intricate level of maximum optimization sounds, particularly for a herd of cows that spend much of the day staring blankly or relieving themselves, Watson said it could mean the difference between a cow's healthy milking or premature death - and the difference between making or losing hundreds of thousands of dollars every year.

The Ida AI has sparked some early interest among farmers eager to compete in an industry in which low milk prices and farm layoffs have everyone on edge. And while truck drivers and cashiers see AI as a job-killing omen, the farmers say they're in a labor crunch from years of too few young people getting into farming and need all the help they can get.

Connecterra, a development team based in the Netherlands, built Ida with help from TensorFlow, the giant AI toolbox that Google created for its own apps and opened to the public in 2015. That release sparked a major wave of AI development, giving start-ups a shortcut to calculating advanced mathematics and creating learning machines.

Google has joined other tech giants in pushing forcefully into AI, with chief executive Sundar Pichai telling a town-hall crowd in January that AI "is one of the most important things humanity is working on" and "more profound than electricity or fire." (He did not explicitly mention cows.)

The "secret sauce".

Standing one March morning among his cows at Seven Oaks Dairy, one of three farms he runs as part of his Hart Agriculture brand, Watson pulls out his iPhone to show off his Ida app. The AI says he has three "potential health problems to be checked" among his herd: Cow #14433 is eating less, while cows #10172 and #3522 are "ruminating" or chewing less, a sign they might feel ill. His herd's "to be inseminated" count is at zero, as signified by a reassuring green check mark.

At 6-foot-4, with combine-wide shoulders and a Kiwi accent, the New Zealand-born Watson, 46, looks like a rugby player - which he was, playing a linebacker-like position in the late "90s for a semi-professional team called the Hurricanes. Shortly afterward, he moved to lead a cattle-grazing research program at the University of Georgia, where he taught and advocated the increasingly rare craft of letting cows amble about aimlessly on a pasture, eating as they go.

His farm's cattle - crossbreeds of America's classic black-and-white moo cow, the Holstein, and New Zealand's relatively slimmer brown Jersey bulls - spend almost all day grazing on the thousands of acres of ryegrass and bermudagrass that surround his farms. That makes tracking their free-range eating and movement harder than at the average American "confinement" dairy, where cows are kept in stalls and fattened on corn and grains.

Spotting problems the old way required closely watching the herd day and night, "unless it's really obvious - you know, she's walking or limping or there are buzzards flying overheads," Watson said. "Buzzards aren't a particularly good health program."

The cows' orange transmitters beam data over the hills of Watson's pastures to a set of antennae near the milking parlor. A "base station" computer then gulps up and processes all that sensor data, doing much of the AI work locally to avoid the problem of spotty rural internet. The sensors pay the price for much of this data exchange, Connecterra co-founder Yasir Khokhar said: "You don't want to know what cows do with them."

The Ida AI was first trained to comprehend cow behavior via thousands of hours of video and sensor inputs, as well as simpler approaches, including Khokhar mimicking bovine techniques with a sensor in his pocket. ("I was the first cow," he said.) Every day brings more cow data and farmer feedback that help the AI learn and improve. The AI, Khokhar estimates, has processed about "600 cow years of data," and is gaining about eight years of new cow data every day.

The AI now logs seven distinct cow behaviors: Walking, standing, lying down, eating, chewing, drinking and idling. Other behaviors are on the way, Khokhar said, though he could not disclose them, calling them part of the "secret sauce."

Dairy farmers have used sensors for years. But Ida's developers say its AI can do things old programs can't, by learning from the cow behavior patterns that can pinpoint injuries, predict the onset of certain diseases and "predict peak ovulation time with over 90 percent accuracy." The AI can also track how changes to cows' bedding, feed and environment can affect, for instance, how much milk they're making or how much they're lying around.

Khokhar, who said he conceived the AI idea while living on a Dutch dairy farm, launched his start-up in late 2016 and now counts a few thousand cow "subscriptions' across farms in seven countries, including the U.S., Spain and Pakistan. The company covers all the equipment and service work and sells monthly subscriptions. Farmers' prices start at about $3 a month per cow, plus a $79.99-per-cow start-up fee, and Watson estimates he has invested about $17,000 on the system so far.

Agriculture has long been one of Big Tech's juiciest target industries. Revamping the way farmers feed the planet, in the face of existential crises such as food shortages and climate change, would be audacious, revolutionary - and highly profitable. Start-ups and farmers are now using camera-equipped robots to pick apples and sort cucumbers, running driverless tractors to harvest grain, and flying scanner drones to spot poachers and survey livestock.

Beyond the Ida collars, other tech start-ups make cow pedometers, robot milkers, tail sensors and electroshock collars that can stop or shift a herd.

You cannot bore a cow to death.

But even some farmers who have invested heavily in new technology balk at the idea of paying for more. Everett Williams, the 64-year-old head of the WDairy farm near Madison, Georgia, said his farm has all kinds of sensors that print out who-knows-how-many reports on matters such as cow activity and if hogs have gotten into his pens. They give him less data than the Ida AI would, he says, but he feels as though he doesn't have the space in his brain for another data stream. "You can only handle so many text alerts," he said.

Systems such as Connecterra are also enduring early criticism beyond the farm. Because the AI can help detect early disorders and walking disabilities, conservationists have criticized the systems as encouraging the breeding of a super-cow by speeding underperformers to the slaughterhouse.

Rodgers, who runs his "daddy-daughter" family dairy farm in Dearing, Georgia, said he's no Luddite when it comes to farm technology. His "super-system" features cow-tracking transponders and, soon, a DeLaval VMS, which milks cows with lasers and robot arms and is advertised as the "ultimate automatic milking machine."

His system, unlike Ida, doesn't track cud-chewing or use AI to tell him which cows to watch or what to do. But he's okay with that. That's the way things have always been done here, and he hopes they'll be that way for a long time.

"There's no substitute for watching your animals. It's an art and a science, and I hope my daughter and nephew get better at it than I am," he said. The cattle, he added, don't care much about evolving with the times. "You cannot bore a cow to death."

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Geopolitics

A Dove From Hiroshima: Is Fumio Kishida Tough Enough To Lead Japan?

Japan's new prime minister is facing the twin challenges of COVID-19 and regional tensions, and some wonder whether he can even last as long as his predecessor, who was forced out after barely one year.

Japan's new PM Fumio Kishida in Tokyo on Sept. 29

Daisuke Kondo

-Analysis-

TOKYO — When Fumio Kishida, Japan's new prime minister. introduced himself earlier this month, he announced that the three major projects of his premiership will be the control of the ongoing pandemic; a new type of capitalism; and national security.

Kishida also pledged to deal with China "as its neighbor, biggest trade partner and an important nation which Japan should continue to dialogue with."

Nothing too surprising. Still, it was a rapid turn of events that brought him to the top job, taking over for highly unpopular predecessor, Yoshihide Suga, who had suddenly announced his resignation from office.


After a fierce race, Kishida defeated Taro Kono to become the president of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), and pave the way for the prime minister's job.

Born into politics

A key reason for Kishida's victory is the improving health situation, following Japan's fifth wave of the COVID pandemic that coincided with this summer's Olympic Games in Tokyo.

The best way to describe Kishida is to compare him to a sponge: not the most interesting item in a kitchen, yet it can absorb problems and clean up muck. His slogan ("Leaders exist to make other people shine") reflects well his political philosophy.

He is an excellent actor.

Kishida was born into a political family: His grandfather and father were both parliament members. Between the ages of six to nine, he studied in New York because of his father's work at the time. He attended the most prestigious private secondary school — the Kaisei Academy, of which about half of its graduates go to the University of Tokyo.

However, after failing three times the entrance exam to , Kishida finally settled for Waseda University. Coming from a family where virtually all the men went to UTokyo, this was Kishida's first great failure in life.

An invitation for Obama

After he graduated from college, Kishida worked for five years in a bank before serving as secretary for his father, Fumitake Kishida. In 1992, his father suddenly died at the age of 65. The following year, Kishida inherited his father's legacy to be elected as a member of the House of Representatives for the Hiroshima constituency. Since then, he has been elected successfully nine straight times, and served as Shinzo Abe's foreign minister for four years, beginning in December 2012. A former subordinate of his from that time commented on Kishida:

"If we are to sum him up in one sentence, he is an excellent actor. Whenever he was meeting his peers from other countries, we would remind him what should be emphasized, or when a firm, unyielding 'No' was necessary, and so on ... At the meetings, he would then put on his best show, just like an actor."

According to some insiders, during this period as foreign minister, his toughest stance was on nuclear weapons. This is due to the fact that his family hails from Hiroshima.

In 2016, following his suggestion, the G7 Ise-Shima Summit was held in Hiroshima, which meant that President Barack Obama visited the city — the first visit by a U.S. president to Hiroshima, where 118,661 lives were annihilated by the U.S. atomic bomb.

Photo of Shinzo Abe, Barack Obama and Fumio Kishida with their backs to the camera, in Hiroshima in 2016

Shinzo Abe, Barack Obama and Fumio Kishida in Hiroshima in 2016

commons.wikimedia.org

Japanese cynics

In September, 2020 when Shinzo Abe stepped down as prime minister, Kishida put out his candidacy for the first time for LDP's presidency. He didn't even get close. This was his second great failure.

But reading his biography, Kishida Vision, I must say that besides the two aforementioned hiccups, Kishida's life has been smooth sailing over the past 64 years

When one has had a happy and easy life, one tends to think that human nature is fundamentally good. Yet, the world doesn't work like that. And Japanese tend to believe that "human nature is vice," and have always felt a bit uneasy with the dovish Kishida diplomacy when he was foreign minister.

Leftist traditions from Hiroshima

Hiroshima has always been a city with a leftist political tradition. Kishida's character, coupled with the fact that he belongs to the moderate Kochikai faction within the LDP, inevitably means that he won't be a right-wing prime minister.

How long will a Fumio Kishida government last?

Kishida would never have the courage to be engaged in any military action alongside Japan's ally, the United States, nor will he set off to rewrite the country's constitution.

So after barely a year of Yoshihide Suga in office, how long will a Fumio Kishida government last? If Japan can maintain its relatively stable health situation for some time, it could be a while. But if COVID comes roaring back, and the winter brings a sixth wave of the pandemic as virtually all Japanese experts in infectious diseases have predicted, then Kishida may just end up like Suga. No sponge can clean up that mess.

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