Research scientist ZULFIKAR HOSSAIN is excited at the prospect of being able to apply his knowledge and interest in artificial intelligence to an industry that is seeking more efficient ways to grow and harvest food.
The son and grandson of proud farming men, it would have been easy for a young boy growing up in Bangladesh to follow the same path.
But Zulfikar Hossain had other ideas.
A naturally inquisitive child, he decided to dismantle a small radio one day and was fascinated by what he found inside. This curiosity set him on a journey that eventually saw him achieve a degree in electronics engineering from the Khulna University of Engineering and Technology. He graduated with First Class Honours then immigrated to New Zealand in 2010 and took up a research and teaching role with AUT whilst completing his PhD in artificial intelligence for robotics. Zulfikar’s research objective was to develop a cognitive mapping algorithm for a mobile robot.
After finishing his doctorate in 2015, he joined Manakau Institute of Technology as a lecturer while also extending his interest in the fields of autonomous systems and computer vision.
Joining PlantTech as a research scientist, he’s now combining all his academic interests in an industry that has taken him back to his roots.
“Because of my family background with farming, I can see how important the work is and that was part of my motivation for joining PlantTech.
“We know that by 2050, our population will be around 10 billion and the demand for food is expected to increase by as much as 70% over the next 30 years. At the same time, productive land is reducing in size and the number of people willing to work in the fields is decreasing.
“I believe that AI will be needed to address these food production and human resource challenges that we’re all facing.”
In the region where Zulfikar grew up, agricultural land is very fertile and farmers grow crops, including rice, jute, sugar cane and various vegetables all year round. There are typically six ‘seasons’ and different crops are grown to suit each one. But he says there are signs that climate change is changing the typical farming calendar there.
“In all parts of the world, climate change is having an impact and that is only going to continue. That’s why I think the work we do with AI will only become more important in agriculture.”
Zulfikar is excited by the prospect of developing applications that make it easier and more efficient for people to grow and harvest food.
“It’s great to be working with all our shareholders who are real-world problem solvers. They are engaged fully with PlantTech and are keen to find important projects for us to solve together.”
“It will be really satisfying for me if I can develop something for farmers.”
Artificial intelligence had the ability to make farming and horticulture more efficient by helping food producers make better decisions based on precise information.
“For example, they will be able to reduce the use of chemicals in the field, like fertilisers or pesticide, using AI-based systems.
“Robots will also be able to go into the field and find disease or take action to solve a problem. There’s just so many commercial applications we can explore.”
AI could also be used to support New Zealand’s vision of being “clean and green” by finding new ways to reduce agriculture’s carbon footprint, he says.
As well as enjoying his new role with PlantTech, Zulfikar is keen to explore more of what the Bay of Plenty has to offer. He and his wife have settled in Mt Maunganui and are loving their new lifestyle and being so close to the beach.
“The weather and traffic here is better than Auckland’s and we definitely want to get more involved in the community.”