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These researchers are bringing AI to farmers

“Farmers feed the entire world — so how might we support them to be resilient and build sustainable systems that also support global food security?” It’s a question that Diana Akrong found herself asking last year. Diana is a UX researcher based in Accra, Ghana, and the founding member of Google’s Accra UX team.Across the…

“Farmers feed the entire world — so how might we support them to be resilient and build sustainable systems that also support global food security?” It’s a question that Diana Akrong found herself asking last year. Diana is a UX researcher based in Accra, Ghana, and the founding member of Google’s Accra UX team.

Across the world, her manager Dr. Courtney Heldreth, was equally interested in answering this question. Courtney is a social psychologist and a staff UX researcher based in Seattle, and both women work as part of Google’s People + Artificial Intelligence Research (PAIR) group. “Looking back on history, we can see how the industrial revolution played a significant role in creating global inequality,” she says. “It set most of Western Europe onto a path of economic dominance that was then followed by both military and political dominance.” Courtney and Diana teamed up on an exploratory effort focused on how AI can help better the lives of small, local farming communities in the Global South. They and their team want to understand what farmers need, their practices, value systems, what their social lives are like — and make sure that Google products reflect these dynamics.

One result of their work is a recently published research paper. The paper — written alongside their colleagues Dr. Jess Holbrook at Google and Dr. Norman Makoto Su of Indiana University and published in the ACM Interactions trade journal — dives into why we need farmer-centered AI research, and what it could mean not just for farmers, but for everyone they feed. I recently took some time to learn more about their work.

How would you explain your job to someone who isn’t in tech?

Courtney: I would say I’m a researcher trying to understand underserved and historically marginalized users’ lives and needs so we can create products that work better for them. 

Diana: I’m a researcher who looks at how people interact with technology. My superpower is my curiosity and it’s my mission to understand and advocate for user needs, explore business opportunities and share knowledge.

What’s something on your mind right now? 

Diana: Because of COVID-19, there’s the threat of a major food crisis in India and elsewhere. We’re wondering how we can work with small farms as well as local consumers, policymakers, agricultural workers, agribusiness owners and NGOs to solve this problem.

Agriculture is very close to my heart, personally. Prior to joining Google, I spent a lot of time learning from smallholder farmers across my country and helping design concepts to address their needs. 

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