Smartphones — the little computers in our pockets — are sapping our willpower. Or, they’re keeping us more connected than ever. Or, they’re hurting kids by distracting their parents. Or, all of the above. We can’t deny smartphones have changed everything. That’s why it’s so satisfying to see the unique, portable power of this technology harnessed for good.
Farmers in Colombia, Benin, Uganda, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, India, and China, are testing a new app on their personal smartphones to cross-check possible pests or blights in banana crops. Our banana-du-jour is the Cavendish; because they’re seedless, Cavendishes are propagated by transplanting, making each individual banana a clone of the others. This lack of genetic diversity spelled doom for the previous popular banana, the Gros Michel when Panama disease came for it in the mid-20th century, and now the Cavendish threatens to go the way of the dodo as well.
Enter the Tumaini app. (The name means “hope” in Swahili.) The app aims to help farmers quickly identify the pest or disease present, raise the alarm in case of an epidemic, and upload individual chunks of data to a large database for big-picture monitoring. And it does all this through AI. From ScienceDaily:
“To build it, researchers uploaded 20,000 images that depicted various visible banana disease and pest symptoms. With this information, the app scans photos of parts of the fruit, bunch, or plant to determine the nature of the disease or pest. It then provides the steps necessary to address the specific disease. […]
Existing crop disease detection models focus primarily on leaf symptoms and can only accurately function when pictures contain detached leaves on a plain background. The novelty in this app is that it can detect symptoms on any part of the crop, and is trained to be capable of reading images of lower quality, inclusive of background noise, like other plants or leaves, to maximize accuracy.”
The future of the cultivated banana rests on this matrix of individual farmers looking out for themselves and each other, via the very tool humans everywhere use to do exactly that — the smartphone. The developers are looking forward to expanding the app to cover many different kinds of crops and pests. Good thing, too, as we move into an age of agricultural instability, we’re going to need all the help we can get.