UC Berkeley team partners in new $20M AI food systems research center

On August 26, 2020, the National Science Foundation (NSF) announced it will be funding a new food systems research center in partnership with the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA). The award of $20M over five years will aim to improve US food systems to address issues such as pandemic-driven food system security and safety; improving crop yield, quality and nutrition; decreasing energy and water resource consumption; and increasing production and eliminating food waste.

The USDA-NIFA Institute for Artificial Intelligence for Next-Generation Food Systems (AIFS) brings together researchers from six institutions: UC Davis, UC Berkeley, Cornell University, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, the University of California division of Agricultural and Natural Resources (ANR), and the US Department of Agriculture (USDA). Each of these institutions has a proven track record of excellence across such areas as artificial intelligence (AI), high-performance computing, food system sciences, and engineering.

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From left to right and top to bottom: Rebecca Abergel, Ana Claudia Arias, Francesco Borrelli, Lee Fleming, Simo Makiharju, Mark Mueller, Khalid Mosalam, Ethan Ligon, Ricardo San Martin, and Tarek Zohdi (team lead)

At UC Berkeley, professor of mechanical engineering Tarek Zohdi (UC Berkeley hub-PI) will lead a team of ten researchers from the UC Berkeley Next Generation Food Systems Center— Rebecca Abergel, Ana Claudia Arias, Francesco Borrelli, Lee Fleming, Simo Makiharju, Mark Mueller, Khalid Mosalam, Ethan Ligon and Ricardo San Martin — with collective expertise in high-performance computing, advanced manufacturing, pathogen propagation, contact tracing, decontamination, autonomous systems, and technology transfer.

When asked about the timing of this effort, Zohdi shared: “Bringing all of the modern high-performance simulation, artificial intelligence and machine learning tools developed in high-tech sectors to the food industry is long overdue. This center is being grounded at the right place and at the right time.”

He continued, “With the ongoing pandemic and fire-destruction, food-security and safety is a top concern in California and the nation.”

Vice Chancellor for Research Randy Katz expressed enthusiasm for UC Berkeley’s role: “Through NSF support and a powerful consortium of intellectual leaders in diverse fields of expertise, we are incredibly excited to bring an engineering-research approach to one of the great societal challenges of the 21st century: a sustainable, safe, and energy efficient food system.” College of Engineering Dean Tsu-Jae King Liu added, “This multi-university collaboration with the USDA will have a transformative impact on food production and distribution systems, to improve health and quality of life for all.”

The center’s objective focuses on the creation of digital replicas of complex food systems, so-called “digital twins,” which can be safely manipulated and optimized in a virtual world and deployed in the physical world afterwards, reducing costs of experiments and accelerating development of new technologies.

The NSF National Artificial Intelligence (AI) Research Institutes program is a joint effort of the National Science Foundation (NSF), US Department of Agriculture (USDA) National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA), US Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Science & Technology Directorate (S&T), US Department of Transportation (DOT) Federal Highway Administration (FHWA), and US Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), seeking to enable such research through AI Research Institutes.

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