AI game changer for palm oil industry

TECHNOLOGY drives much of the world. Artificial intelligence (AI) is one that is now making waves. Together with other technologies including the Internet of things (IoT) and robotics, AI is changing the game of business and industry.

AI refers to a technology that can match human intelligence, making machines perform tasks almost like humans. Software algorithms are behind this technology. AI has become attractive because it can help deliver business growth, aid in complex decision-making, and transform businesses to become more intelligent.

Coined by John McCarthy in the 1950s, AI essentially refers to the ability of a computer program to learn and think. Many problem solvers of the world now look to AI for answers. The global waste issue, which has grown increasingly complex, deploys AI to better organise collection and treatment at waste processing facilities.

The monitoring of pollution, especially of rivers and waterways, uses remote sensing technology to capture images that are then deciphered using AI. The same satellite imaging technology is used to monitor forests and look for cases of illegal logging.

Manufacturing deploys AI extensively to increase productivity as well as improve product quality.

Data analytics also deploys AI extensively. This involves analysing vast amounts of data to better understand market trends and consumer choices. Social media is a major source of such data.

Agriculture is also increasingly looking to AI to resolve many of its challenges. The palm oil industry, for one, has been eyeing AI for some time now to resolve some of its productivity and marketing issues.

The industry remains preoccupied with the battle to neutralise the spread of fake news and untruths about palm oil. It is good to hear that the Plantation Industries and Commodities Ministry is going on an offensive to deal with this challenge.

However, productivity has emerged as a more daunting challenge in recent times. Here, we are talking about crop losses that have deprived the industry of much revenue. At the current high price of palm oil (touching RM5,000 per tonne), unharvested fruits have resulted in billions of ringgit in losses. Labour shortage is largely the reason behind why large tracts of oil palm fruits are not being harvested.

But it is not just labour that is contributing to the losses. It is also about harvesting when the fruits are optimally ripe. The loose fruits technique, which is widely used to decide harvesting time, is not fully reliable. One can see evidence of a high percentage of unripe fruits at the mills. Unripe fruits result in low oil content.

AI can definitely play a role here, but the industry needs the right strategy to effectively embrace it.

Through MPOB (Malaysian Palm Oil Board), the industry should invest in a centre dedicated to the development of AI in the entire spectrum of palm oil production. With AI, the industry can better monitor the sustainability of its performance, including the impact on greenhouse gas emission and capture.

In fact, with the adoption of AI and other related technologies, more young people may be attracted to work in the industry.


Tan Sri Omar Centre for STI Policy

UCSI University

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