Farming: Beware hacking attacks on new farm technology

The uptake of computer technologies offers huge potential for agriculture, but those developing and manufacturing farm machinery are failing to take steps to make the equipment protected from hacker attacks.

Agritech at cyber risk
Agritech at cyber risk

The threat this poses to the supply of agriculture produce on farm businesses, farmers and national food security was highlighted in a scientific paper published this week

The researchers from Cambridge University said that the risks of both hacking and unintended consequences were underappreciated and poorly understood by the sector.

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And with Artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning on the cusp of driving an agricultural revolution, the report published in Nature cautioned that the risks in this approach are currently being ignored.

With increasing computer automation of equipment and processes the research paper painted a worrying scenario.

“Imagine that all authority for tilling, planting, fertilising, monitoring and harvesting this field has been delegated to artificial intelligence: algorithms that control drip-irrigation systems, self-driving tractors and combine harvesters, clever enough to respond to the weather and the exact needs of the crop. Then imagine a hacker messes things up.”

The new risk analysis said that the idea of intelligent machines running farms was no longer science fiction.

“Large companies are already pioneering the next generation of autonomous ag-bots and decision support systems that will replace humans in the field,” said lead researcher, Dr Asaf Tzachor in the University of Cambridge’s Centre for the Study of Existential Risk (CSER).

“But so far no-one seems to have asked the question ‘are there any risks associated with a rapid deployment of agricultural AI?’” he added.

He said that despite the huge promise AI offered for improving crop management and productivity, potential risks had to be addressed responsibly and new technologies properly tested to ensure they were safe and secure against accidental failures, unintended consequences, and cyber-attacks.

The paper raised the alarm about hackers potentially causing disruption to commercial farms using AI - by poisoning datasets or by shutting down sprayers, autonomous drones and robotic harvesters.

But the researchers also warned that even the best of intentions could deliver harmful unintended consequences. An AI system programmed only to deliver the best crop yield in the short term might ignore the environmental consequences, leading to overuse of fertilisers and soil erosion in the long term – an approach which could poison ecosystems or pollute the soil and waterways.

And expert AI farming systems that didn’t factor in the complexities of labour inputs would ignore and potentially sustain the exploitation of disadvantaged communities, warned Tzachor.

“AI is being hailed as the way to revolutionise agriculture. As we deploy this technology on a large scale, we should closely consider potential risks and aim to mitigate those early on in the technology design,”

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