Machine learning is making pesto even more delicious

Researchers at MIT have used AI to improve the flavor of basil. It’s part of a trend that is seeing artificial intelligence revolutionize farming.

What makes basil so good? In some cases, it’s AI.

Machine learning has been used to create basil plants that are extra-delicious. While we sadly cannot report firsthand on the herb’s taste, the effort reflects a broader trend that involves using data science and machine learning to improve agriculture.

The researchers behind the AI-optimized basil used machine learning to determine the growing conditions that would maximize the concentration of the volatile compounds responsible for basil’s flavor. The study appears in the journal PLOS One today.

The basil was grown in hydroponic units within modified shipping containers in Middleton, Massachusetts. Temperature, light, humidity, and other environmental factors inside the containers could be controlled automatically. The researchers tested the taste of the plants by looking for certain compounds using gas chromatography and mass spectrometry. And they fed the resulting data into machine-learning algorithms developed at MIT and a company called Cognizant.

The idea of using machine learning to optimize plant yield and properties is rapidly taking off in agriculture. Last year, Wageningen University in the Netherlands organized an “Autonomous Greenhouse” contest, in which different teams competed to develop algorithms that increased the yield of cucumber plants while minimizing the resources required. They worked with greenhouses where a variety of factors are controlled by computer systems.

Similar technology is already being applied in some commercial farms, says Naveen Singla, who leads a data science team focused on crops at Bayer, a German multinational that acquired Monsanto last year. “Flavor is one of the areas where we are heavily using machine learning—to understand the flavor of different vegetables,” he says.  MORE