A global non-profit dedicated to the advancement of cellular agriculture is collaborating with the Alberta Machine Intelligence Institute (Amii) to explore how artificial intelligence and machine learning can contribute to the science behind lab-grown meat.
"Cellular agriculture is all about how do we grow a lot of cells to make food inexpensively," said Isha Datar, the Edmonton-based executive director of New Harvest. "AI allows us to better understand what are all the complex factors that would go into a scale-up process for producing some cultured foods."
Cellular agriculture is "still in the really early days of research in some ways," Datar told Taproot after Amii announced the collaboration on Dec. 12. "There could be a ton of optimization that happens that's powered by AI."
That's precisely the sort of thing Amii likes to get involved in, said Stephanie Enders, vice president of product for the institute.
"In our unique role as a not-for-profit institute on AI, we're doing so much work to support industry as they're adopting this technology to fulfill its full potential, but we're also looking for partners that want to do collaborative research that … can make a real impact on the communities we serve," Enders said. "And cellular agriculture is really one of those most promising fields."
The collaboration is funded by Schmidt Futures, a philanthropic initiative started by former Google CEO Eric Schmidt and his wife Wendy that "bets early on exceptional people making the world better." The values are aligned all around, Enders said.
"It's a shared feeling across the three organizations that exceptional people driven to change the world is where we should be making some of these investments."
It will also have tangible results, she added. A survey of the opportunities in the field, building on initial work from Zachary Cosenza and Michael Todhunter, will be presented at Upper Bound in May. Then a research fellow with a cross-appointment to New Harvest and Amii's advanced technology program will pursue one of the challenges identified in that survey.
The assets associated with the collaboration will be open-source and thus accessible for anyone to use, reuse, redistribute, and build on. That aligns with New Harvest's belief that "publicly funded research to always be publicly accessible," said Datar. And the challenge at hand is so immense that keeping information siloed is detrimental, she said.
"This future of food is so huge and so advanced that we should keep it open, just from a perspective of control and to make sure that the work can scale to be as big as it possibly can be."
Intellectual property tends to be closely guarded in cellular agriculture, in part because trade secrets attract investment in such a high-cost field. But that's not necessarily good for a world that needs to produce more food while addressing climate change.
"I think as we head into a world where the rules of farming are changing, we actually do really need to think about what the role of proprietary technology is, and how much does it actually help advance new technologies versus hinder it," Datar said.
Enders said she likes to think in terms of "right-sizing" the scope of intellectual property. To her, it makes sense to be open and collaborative at this early stage of understanding the potential applications of AI and ML.
"That's going to spark new ideas," she said. "It's going to really open that dialogue that can create the potential for future IP for other people that are looking to start companies that are looking to revolutionize a field."
It's hard to say whether everything will remain open forever, Enders added, "but I know that we're committed to delivering on New Harvest's mandate to default to open, making the assets associated accessible for all."
This is Amii's first foray into cellular agriculture, but advancing traditional agriculture has been part of its mandate since the beginning, said Enders, citing the Reducing Emissions through Machine Intelligence (REMI) program as an example.
Datar first learned about lab-grown meat as a student at the University of Alberta in 2009. She went on to co-found two startups in the space. She then transferred her founding equity to New Harvest in 2014 to establish an endowment for research in cellular agriculture.
Datar and fellow members of the New Harvest community coined the term "cellular agriculture" in 2015, 11 years after the organization was founded to fund research into the use of cell cultures to grow meat.
Datar returned to Edmonton a couple of years ago, and though New Harvest remains a global organization, she is eager to develop the field here.
"We're trying to make Edmonton a site for a lot of cell ag innovation," she said. "(Seeing) how we can accelerate cell ag locally is very top of mind for me."