AI & Climate Advocacy: Neil Deshmukh’s Perspectives
By: Om Desai
Neil Deshmukh is the founder and CEO of PlantumAI, and a freshman at MIT. Knowing that we two have a common passion for using technologies like Artificial Intelligence to make a social impact, Ms. Karina Weinstein, program strategy and innovation director of FXB International, has introduced us to each other.
I found Neil’s work extremely inspiring as he develops technological solutions to empower people affected by climate change and to help foster climate resilience. Some of his projects include PlantumAI, which helps farmers be able to better detect and treat crop diseases, and Vocaleyes, which allows people to use AI to help blind or low-vision individuals navigate their environment.
Neil strongly believes that he can use his background in technology to help people in communities that he cares about fighting back against the effects of climate change.
I was very glad to have the opportunity to spend some time with Neil and interview him about his work and experiences. I found that he was a very warm-hearted person, who has a deep passion for actually doing something for humankind using the technical skills he has.
Om: As we begin, please tell me a little bit about yourself and your background. What climate organizations are you involved with? What is your role in the organization?
Neil: Yeah, of course! The first of the two big organizations I’m involved with is PlantumAI. I’m the founder and CEO of PlantumAI, and our goal is to use artificial intelligence and emerging technologies to augment farmers in developing regions, allowing them to optimize their crop yields and pesticide utilization. By giving them the information, they need to better harvest and protect the crops they use, it can allow them to better protect the environment by reducing the pesticide they use, reducing runoff. It also provides them with food and economic security, which allows them to have more crops for food, and be able to better sell their products, and be able to make a livelihood.
PlantumAI also works as a community, because it allows farmers to connect with universities, which enables them to get the information they need as to what pesticides to use and what diseases are in the area. We can make this work much more efficiently by using AI to augment both sides and working on many more farms.
Another big organization I’m part of is called VocalEyes, which does have a different use case, where artificial intelligence can be used as a vision tool to help blind or low-vision individuals navigate their environment, doing things like providing instructions or identifying objects.
Even though both projects are aimed towards different people, the underlying technology is similar, as to help under-resourced groups, helping them get where they need to.
Om: I would love to hear about your climate story. How did you first get passionate about climate change activism?
Neil: I’d like to tell a personal story: My family is from India, from two small villages in India, and I really enjoy meeting with them. The event that shifted my perspective on climate change was the summer of freshman year in high school, where my family traveled to a nearby village. At that village, I noticed that a lot of the people there had been exposed to pesticides in the water supply, getting sick and going to hospitals. This was because farmers put so many pesticides on their crops, that it ran off into the water and poisoned the villagers. When I saw this, at first, I was angry at the farmers, because it was difficult for me to understand why they would put so many dangerous pesticides on their crops. I asked one of the farmers why they’d use so many pesticides, and the way they answered changed the way I looked at these problems. For them, agriculture is critical, both so they can get enough food and economically support themselves, and also so that they can support their regions. Since agriculture was so important to the well-being of their community, they couldn’t take risks about something for which they didn’t have all the information, so they had to dump every pesticide to be safe, without concerning themselves over environmental or communal problems. That really opened my eyes and helped me realize that sometimes two sides in a problem have different motivations, and the best way to solve a problem sustainably is to reconcile both sides. That’s how I first got into environmental conservation and climate change activism, by seeing how changes in the climate meant that the old knowledge of farming families started to lose meaning, which left farmers in developing countries undersupported without tools like Google we have in developed countries. This direct effect of global warming hurts everyone, as it forces farmers to use too many pesticides, hurting the people in the town.
Seeing how all these topics came together in such a negative way was what opened my eyes to the true dangers of climate change.
Om: So, was making a better solution for this problem part of the reason why you made PlantumAI?
Neil: Exactly. The idea behind Plantum AI was to help farmers find out exactly what and how much pesticides to use. The knowledge that farmers had was mostly anecdotal knowledge, but local universities in India did have the knowledge to conduct analyses and help farmers. However, it’s often hard to help farmers, especially in isolated regions. PlantumAI was not only to augment the knowledge of the universities and allow them to go through information more quickly but also to make a network to let farmers send and receive information to plantocologists, so they can best optimize their crop yields, especially in times when climate change makes farming much more confusing.
Om: How has your background in computer science and technology helped you advocate for climate change?
Neil: I’ve always thought of technology as a superpower, which gives you abilities to change lives and solve problems. I started working on PlantumAI in my bedroom, and once I finished it, I talked to farmers in the regions I knew, who’d like to try out my technology. Coding is powerful in that it can distill knowledge and connect people in ways that were never possible before. With AI and network development skills, I was able to make the solution impactful and use it in many forms.
Om: What are some examples of significant work you’ve done that you think can help in the goal of fighting and bringing awareness to climate change?
Neil: PlantumAI is probably the biggest example. The knowledge of climate change is a necessity in the modern world because we have to make sure that everyone knows how the climate is changing and how to counter it. This is especially true in areas that are less accessible. That’s where I find where I can do the best work, where I can get the word out to farmers and under-resourced people about climate change, and help work with them to modify the strategies that they’ve been relying on to account for climate change.
Om: What advice do you have for young people who are interested in climate activism?
Neil: I felt that one of the biggest roadblocks when I was first getting into climate activism, was that I did not know where to start because it was a planet-wide issue. I wasn’t sure how just one kid like me could make a dent in such a massive issue. I realized that how I could make an impact was by starting small, within communities I cared about, and with problems that I could target directly. I started with PlantumAI within a single community near where my parents lived, and from there I could keep expanding to help even more people. That’s the necessary mentality, to start focusing on one community. Making just an initial change, even within just a small group of people, can cascade into making an immense change, and by taking the first step, you gain skills and experience that let you go further and make an even bigger change.
What matters is taking small steps towards the change you want to make.
Om: Is there any project that you feel made the most impact or that you are most proud of? Could you provide more details on it?
Neil: Again, it is definitely PlantumAI. To go more in-depth on how exactly it works, we work in 25 different villages in India, where we give farmers the technologies they need to connect to PlantumAI, like a smartphone and a sensory monitoring kit. Then, when they see crop disease, they can take a picture of the crops. The picture will get processed through an AI algorithm, and then sent to a university. Agricultural students who get access to these images can check off algorithms to analyze the image and also prescribe treatments, which allows them to get real-world experience while helping farmers. The farmer will then be able to better optimize their crop yield using that information. We also have crop disease prediction algorithms, that by looking at crop disease propagation in the area, help farmers prepare for crop diseases before the diseases even hit their area. This is information they’ve never had before. We’ve seen a major increase in crop yields with people working with PlantumAI. In addition, PlantumAI can also help farmers during Covid-19, as since farmers can’t use traditional methods of meeting with others and asking them for advice during a pandemic, PlantumAI can allow them to get the analyses and advice they need virtually.