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Partnership to develop platform for New Zealand agritech AI research

By Shannon Williams, 11 Feb 2021

New AI computing power and technology is being developed to meet demand from Bay of Plenty-based scientists for faster processing of complex research data via a new scientific partnership.

The initiative, a marriage between the needs of PlantTech Research Institute in Tauranga and the expertise of New Zealand eScience Infrastructure (NeSI), is accelerating innovative research, starting in the agritech sector.

It will remove computer processing bottlenecks that limit the ability for data scientists to train artificial intelligence (AI) models that learn from high volumes of complex and tightly coupled data. It will also dramatically reduce the turnaround times for current AI research.

Horticulture and produce are among the first New Zealand industries to benefit from this faster AI computing infrastructure, with PlantTech scientists using it to explore new approaches to data-driven horticulture in key sectors, including kiwifruit.

PlantTech and NeSI signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) in November 2020. NeSI has procured a first tranche of Nvidia A100 general purpose Graphics Processing Units (GPGPUs) that are now being commissioned. NeSI is working with early adopter communities, including PlantTech, to pilot the use of these new technologies for the next few months, to tailor environments and workflows to meet their needs, and to assess public and private research sector demand to inform future investments.

PlantTech chief executive Mark Begbie says the MoU was the start of an exciting strategic partnership with NeSI to better understand and cater to the developing needs of New Zealand’s AI researchers.

“As NeSI continues to ensure New Zealand’s research community is well catered for in traditional supercomputing driven by Central Processing Units (CPUs), the field of AI research is driving demand for high performance computing based around GPUs," he says.

"The strategic alliance and MoU will see PlantTech’s insights as a preeminent developer of AI solutions couple with NeSI’s solution expertise as a preeminent provider of computational capability to ensure New Zealand has the right AI research platforms to take it to the next level of international competitiveness, now and into the future.”

NeSI director Nick Jones says the partnership with PlantTech provides NeSI with an opportunity to extend its national platform to be fit-for-purpose for data-intensive agritech workloads.

“This is a special collaboration, enhancing the capabilities and support we offer to New Zealand’s agricultural research communities, particularly those working in emerging technologies, such as AI and deep learning," he says.

“It also gives us the opportunity to extend our reach, beyond the public research sector, to positively impact research in the horticulture industry, which is discovering that its pressing challenges can be solved by more precise technologies.

“In doing so, NeSI has leaned into its relationships and distributed teams to connect locally with PlantTech. Our national eResearch infrastructures are keen to support expertise on the ground - working with PlantTech we’re establishing an approach and opening a path to other possible partnerships in the Bay area and other regions.”

Begbie says access to such a high-performance GPU-based platform is critical for PlantTech’s market-driven, horticulture-focussed research, as well as for the wider primary sector.

“Having access to the latest generation of systems brings capabilities that will enable new approaches to highly complex data challenges that will deliver step change benefits across productivity, profitability, sustainability, provenance, and biosecurity," he says.

“PlantTech’s team works collaboratively to deliver data-driven solutions that build commercial success and competitive advantage for our regional primary industry companies. In 2021, this is more important than ever, particularly as the Government focuses on New Zealand’s economic recovery post-COVID-19 and executes the Agritech Industry Transformation Plan to build stronger and more productive horticulture and agriculture sectors.”

In its first year, the research institute has trialled innovative solutions to various challenges affecting the kiwifruit industry, including crop estimation and fruit maturity testing.

Research director Ian Yule says NeSI’s new world-class computing resource would turbocharge PlantTech’s translational research capability.

“We can achieve a lot with the computing systems currently available to us, as shown by the value we have rapidly delivered to partners already. However, there are challenges that we simply cannot address without the step up to a true supercomputing architecture," he explains. 

"Through NeSI, we will be able to access the scale of processing and memory that we need to deliver the next generation of AI solutions, beyond the current state of the art. Through this strategic partnership, we will ensure New Zealand has the tools in the future to sustain the momentum.”

Dr Georgina Rae, NeSI’s science engagement manager, expects the new platform will act as a catalyst for boundary-breaking science in New Zealand.

“Other countries have been exploring these capabilities for years, but having an indigenous, accessible platform in New Zealand will support the momentum we’re seeing build around technology and solutions that support data-driven decision-making on orchards and farms.

“Our partnership will continue to build a shared understanding of researchers’ goals so we can better equip them with computational power to deliver valuable insights for the benefit of the scientific community and industry.”

PlantTech is sending its research data to NeSI’s platform with support from Research and Education Advanced Network New Zealand (REANNZ). The not-for-profit Crown-owned company operates a super-fast network and serves the unique demands of scientists, researchers and educators by helping them move and share data-intensive research around New Zealand and the world.

Dr Begbie says the capabilities of research networks, such as REANNZ, cannot be compared to the internet and are an absolutely vital element in enabling the movement of research data from collection on the orchard or in the packhouse to NeSI’s e-science platform. 

“Achieving the transfer 80-100 times faster is hugely beneficial - a day-and-a-half becomes an hour. But for large data packages, transfer is simply not practically achievable over the internet.”

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