Mason to participate in new five-year $20 million grant

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The proliferation of technology, in particular emerging platforms and services that deploy sensors and artificial intelligence (AI), creates opportunities for improving society.

The National Science Foundation and the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture announced a five-year, $20 million grant to establish an AI Institute for Resilient Agriculture (AIIRA – “eye-rah”) based at Iowa State University. The institute is one of 11 new National Artificial Intelligence Research Institutes that NSF has established in 2021 with a total investment of $220 million. George Mason University professor Aditya Johri will serve as a member of the institute’s education and outreach team.

AIIRA aims to transform agriculture by creating a new AI-driven framework for modeling plants at various agronomically relevant scales. The researchers will accomplish this by introducing AI-driven digital twins that fuse diverse data with siloed domain knowledge. They will deploy these twins across agricultural applications that directly impact the USDA Science Blueprint for crop improvement and production.

In his role on the team, Johri will work with an interdisciplinary cross-institutional team on the education, workforce development, and outreach components of the project. He will assist with the design of learning activities and their evaluation.

The collaboration between computer scientists, electrical and mechanical engineers, agriculture specialists, and computing and engineering education experts provides a unique multidisciplinary opportunity, says Johri. “This project addresses the Broadening Participation emphasis within computing education and will study how we can convey the complexities of what computing makes possible to more people,” he says.

Johri conducts research on technology workforce development. He says, “If we want to reap the benefits of AI equitably, we have to understand the actual needs of users and then translate research into practices that work for them. We accelerate this process by educating the end-user about how AI might serve their needs. And throughout this process, we have to ensure that AI-related developments are being designed and implemented ethically.”

To facilitate broader acceptance of this project’s technical work, the team will leverage a robust training framework to power education and workforce development through formal and informal educational activities.

“Our approach starts from recruitment practices through onboarding and training practices, and extends to our communication and teamwork,” says Johri. “In conjunction with the AIIRA learning community, we will embed inclusive excellence into our mentoring and advising practices.”

“I am delighted to announce the establishment of new NSF National AI Research Institutes as we look to expand into all 50 states,” says National Science Foundation director Sethuraman Panchanathan. “These institutes are hubs for academia, industry, and government to accelerate discovery and innovation in AI. Inspiring talent and ideas everywhere in this important area will lead to new capabilities that improve our lives from medicine to entertainment to transportation and cybersecurity and position us in the vanguard of competitiveness and prosperity.”

The new institutes join seven previously announced in August 2020 that are part of a $140 million federal effort to develop hubs for artificial intelligence research that address national needs.

“AIIRA is bringing together scientists and farmers, industry and government to adopt these technologies and encourage their adoption to more effectively transform agriculture to meet the needs of our growing and the increasingly climate-challenged planet,” project leaders wrote in a summary.

Baskar Ganapathysubramanian, the Joseph C. and Elizabeth A. Anderlik Professor in Engineering at Iowa State, will lead the institute. The institute also includes collaborators from the tech and agriculture industries, governments, commodity groups, and other organizations.

Partner expertise

Iowa State University – plant sciences, artificial intelligence, social sciences, business

Carnegie Mellon University – robotics, artificial intelligence

New York University Tandon School of Engineering– artificial intelligence

University of Arizona – cyberinfrastructure

University of Nebraska-Lincoln – agricultural research, diverse growing zones

George Mason University – education, workforce development, and outreach

University of Missouri – social sciences, economics

Iowa Soybean Association – outreach

This institute is funded by USDA-NIFA.

Learn more about the NSF AI Research Institutes by visiting nsf.gov.

For more on NSF's investments in AI, see the NSF Science Matters article, “Expanding the geography of innovation: NSF AI Research Institutes 2021.”