Collaborating with Chinese partners: “Chinese internet giant dares to invest in autonomous greenhouses”

Academically collaborating with Chinese partners is extremely interesting as they come from one of the biggest and most influential countries in the world. Yet it also raises questions. In this six-part interview series we are going to discover the nature of that collaboration and how it benefits the partners in both Wageningen and China. Part 2: Silke Hemming, head of the Greenhouse Technology research team, on working with the Chinese internet giant Tencent.

What does the collaboration with the Chinese company Tencent entail?

“We work together on a project basis, namely in the Autonomous Greenhouse Challenge. That’s a contest for teams consisting of scientists, business professional and students. The teams, which include people from all over the world, are competing in the fully computerised greenhouses in Bleiswijk to see who can best grow a certain crop without using any manual labour. The first edition in 2018 focused on growing cucumbers. In 2019 we grew tomatoes, and this next edition will focus on lettuce (the 2020 challenge was cancelled because of the coronavirus epidemic, ed.). Tencent is funding this project (up to now 1 million euro, ed.) but is also substantively involved. The head of the R&D of their AI (artificial intelligence) department is one of the international members of the jury. We also have other sponsors, but they’re smaller.”

Silke Hemming, moderator of the Hackathon Autonomous Greenhouse Challenge 2019. Photo: Silke Hemming
Silke Hemming, moderator of the Hackathon Autonomous Greenhouse Challenge 2019. Photo: Silke Hemming

Why would WUR want to work with a Chinese company like Tencent?

“Because in early 2019 they were super enthusiastic about our ideas about autonomous greenhouses. The American David Wallerstein (an experienced internet tycoon from Silicon Valley and, since 2014, the Chief Exploration Officer at Tencent, ed.) visited Plant Sciences in that same year.

No one in the Netherlands was interested in autonomous greenhouses at all at the time

During his visit we gave 2-minute pitches, which is how he heard about the autonomous greenhouses from me. He was immediately interested. That’s when the plan for an Autonomous Greenhouse Challenge was born. At the time, no one in the Netherlands was at all interested in investing in research in this area. Self-driving cars and even planes were interesting, but greenhouses? No. Wallerstein is an inspiring figure with a keen interest in the combination of tech and food as well as in the fact that we would make public the knowledge gained from the Autonomous Greenhouse Challenge. Tencent is the Chinese equivalent of Google (developer of WeChat, a combination of Twitter, Facebook and WhatsApp, ed.).”

The participants in the Hackathon Autonomous Greenhouse Challenge 2019 came from all over the world. Photo: Silke Hemming
The participants in the Hackathon Autonomous Greenhouse Challenge 2019 came from all over the world. Photo: Silke Hemming

What’s in it for Wallerstein?

“Although you might think that a man like him, who’s at the top of the professional ladder, is only interested in earning money, he’s actually looking for a combination with sustainability. And that’s our focus because automated greenhouses need fewer workers, are more efficient and also more sustainable; you need fewer (natural) resources such as energy, water and nutrients. An AI algorithm can determine the optimum use of artificial light and can use it as economically as possible for the grower. Using data to optimise a production process for food, something we all need worldwide, was something that Wallerstein found extremely attractive.”

The teams in the challenge write algorithms to instruct the greenhouse. Does Tencent pass that information along to Chinese companies who also want to start working with autonomous greenhouses?

“We have very clear agreements with Tencent about what can and cannot be shared or made public. WUR collects all of the data created by the teams during the challenge in the WUR greenhouses in Bleiswijk and makes these data public, but the algorithm with which the teams can instruct the greenhouses (using artificial intelligence, ed.) is something they keep to themselves. Understandably, because the teams want to perhaps be able to use these algorithms for subsequent commercial purposes, so that’s a sensitive area.”

Cybersecurity is always priority number 1 no matter who we work with

This also applies to our own WUR data. We make data available during this present edition of the challenge, for example the images of lettuce growing. These data are available to the teams and, after the challenge, are made more widely available. But the greenhouse climate models and growth models that we’ve developed through years of research are data that we keep to ourselves, data that remain on the WUR server. We’re very protective of this! We don’t want other parties to get their hands on it and use it: Tencent, Google, Microsoft, whoever. Cybersecurity is always priority number one, no matter who we work with.”

One of the members of the Chinese team in the AiCU preparing the greenhouse experiment with cucumbers during the Autonomous Greenhouse Challenge 2018. Photo: Silke Hemming
One of the members of the Chinese team in the AiCU preparing the greenhouse experiment with cucumbers during the Autonomous Greenhouse Challenge 2018. Photo: Silke Hemming

Have you ever worried about working with a Chinese company with regard to privacy and intellectual property rights?

“No, not at all. I only realised how sensitive these issues were when we launched the Autonomous Greenhouse Challenge with a press conference at which Dutch journalists asked all sorts of questions about cybersecurity et cetera. Naïve? I don’t know. I’ve never had reason to be worried.”

Are you sure that it’s safe to collaborate with China?

“As I’ve said, I know that WUR has taken good measures to protect our own data. Does the Chinese government look over our shoulder? I don’t know. Chinese organisations are also monitored: for example, tech companies are regularly reprimanded by the government. But even if things are being monitored, it doesn’t create problems for us. The collaboration with Tencent brings usage of the autonomous greenhouse that much closer, both here and at many other places in the world ranging from Mexico to America to Southeast Asia. And certainly because the nature of the challenge is a public one. This is good news for the worldwide problems of food production and sustainability that we’re dedicating ourselves to internationally.

The collaboration with Tencent contributes to global food production and the challenges of sustainability

We’ve noticed that Chinese teams aren’t really eager to share their data, but that doesn’t apply only to the Chinese because I’ve also experienced that with other Asian cultures such as Japan and South Korea. There too people tend to keep their research information to themselves. And that’s also true in the Netherlands. In that sense, each culture can learn from the others in this challenge: you can progress only by working together. That isn’t a political or a commercial goal, but rather a societal one.”

What’s the situation with the autonomous greenhouse now that the third edition of the challenge is about to start?

“Dutch companies have begun to show interest, which is good: the Netherlands is the world leader in the area of greenhouses, and we have to set the tone in this area as well. We needed a push from China, which we’re very grateful for. Remotely regulating a greenhouse is very promising. The first challenge showed that this enabled you to grow more cucumbers at lower costs. In the second edition we saw that it produced qualitatively better – and thus tastier – tomatoes. What you can achieve with lettuce is something that we’ll see early next year in the greenhouses in Bleiswijk.”

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David Wallerstein during the 2nd Autonomous Greenhouse Challenge in 2019.