When she was a child growing up in the small farming community of Tracy, Minnesota, Monika Sziron (THUM Ph.D. Candidate) recalls that her mom used a rather unconventional yardstick to measure her height each year: a corn stalk. As the duo drove down country roads lined by soybean, corn, and other crop fields, Sziron’s mom would pull over and stand her daughter next to a mature stalk to compare her new height to the previous year.
“It’s just a small memory, but I’ve always loved watching the fields grow,” says Sziron, who now lives in Montgomery, Illinois, and maintains a quarter-acre home garden plot that yields fruits and vegetables ranging from kale and peppers to raspberries and grapes, and even a cherry tree. Sziron commutes from her pastoral setting to Chicago, where she is combining her lifelong interest in agriculture with a paired interest in computer science and emerging technologies at Illinois Institute of Technology’s Center for the Study of Ethics in the Professions.
For her dissertation, Sziron created a survey this spring querying the use of artificial intelligence in agriculture today and is distributing it to farmers in the greater Midwest region (Illinois, Wisconsin, Ohio, Michigan, Indiana, Minnesota, and Iowa). Sziron is hopeful that by the project’s conclusion in April 2022, her findings can be shared with state agriculture policymakers and can play a role in assisting how developers can incorporate AI into agricultural devices while keeping ethical, practical, and human-centric considerations in mind.
“I believe many farmers are using AI in some way, shape, or form, whether it’s AI implemented within their combines via upgrades or via applications that they are using on their smart phones or computers,” says Sziron. “And with my findings so far, there is a general positivity, optimism, and willingness to implement AI within farming practices.”
She says that while AI can make farming more efficient in terms of both labor and costs, and tries to make farming more predictable even in the midst of a changing climate, Sziron believes that it is critical that the traditional human element of farming not be lost in an attempt to incorporate new technologies in the industry.
“Technology and farming have a complex history. I like the example of the threshing machine. The threshing machine was a useful machine but it also required a number of people to operate. When the threshing machine arrived on the farm or in the community, everyone knew that there was going to be some kind of social element,” Sziron explains. “The threshing machine was a sign and symbol for the community that people would be coming together and seeing one another. As technology advanced and continues to advance, there are more instances of less community. One memoir I’ve been reading mentions how a farmer’s wife wished that headlights would never have been put on tractors because it allowed her husband to work late into the night. She wished she could see him more, as it meant that work hours could go beyond sunrise to sunset.”
As Sziron’s surveys continue to come in via her networking connections and social media, and through word-of-mouth efforts, she looks forward to bringing awareness to the discussion of AI ethics in farming, a niche that right now, she says, seems overlooked.
“Within the academic landscape and even within the general public, we often forget where our food comes from and who is behind our food resources,” says Sziron. “This is an area that hasn’t had a lot of scholarship—and I had to ask, why not? There are families behind those corn and soybean fields, and I think that is really important to remember.”