Today's cannabis industry can best be described as pioneering. No word is a better fit to describe the spirit of a now-booming industry that’s had to fight its way to legality through decades of activism and self-determination. As the cannabis industry hurdles into the future, innovative cultivators and scientists have been developing new technologies to accommodate the ever-expanding commercial market and the regulations it must abide by.
Everything from cannabis cultivation to extraction to delivery methods and seed-to-sale tracking demand technological solutions that break into new frontiers and even set standards for other, tangential industries like agriculture, medicine, and retail. Day after day, cannabis businesses are venturing into new terrains as exciting and unexplored as artificial intelligence (AI), automation, augmented reality, machine learning, blockchain, and more.
Cultivation Enhanced With Machine Learning and Augmented Reality
New technologies applied to cannabis cultivation are allowing for higher yields at lower prices, while reducing energy usage and the need to preventatively apply pesticides (which will eventually be beneficial for the entire agricultural industry, especially indoor grows).
“It’s really important that we do what we can to take all the learning from this industry and bring it to all crops," Vincent Harkiewicz, CEO and co-founder of Grownetics, told Civilized. "The only real complaint about controlled environment agriculture in Canada is that it’s too energy intensive, so there are lots of ways we can develop buildings and facilities that are much more efficient in terms of energy use.”
Grownetics and other companies like Motorleaf and Deep Green are developing growing platforms that combine high resolution sensors, automation systems, and plant tracking technology. The goal of these platforms is to retrieve vital real-time information on each plant (like growth rate, nutrient deficiencies and pest diagnosing), to recognize what is wrong, and to tell the farmers how to fix it.
Since some production facilities already have different types of sensing hardware, Grownetics builds smart cultivation systems that can adapt to any facility. By integrating to existing hardware, the company can implant its machine learning software to indoor, outdoor, or greenhouse cultivation, without the need to invest in new equipment. This is what people in the field call an "open platform" — a platform that can be programmed to retrieve information from any existing set-up, keeping investment to a minimum.
To put it simply, by using a wide array of sensors that track every stage of the plant’s development, these smart growing systems can measure every bit of data available in a production facility and use artificial intelligence to provide recommendations that help farmers grow better plants more efficiently. Farmers can know exactly what’s wrong with each plant (“this plant needs more nitrogen," "this plant needs less violet light," or "this plant is likely to develop root rot") and get insight on what to do to fix it. The systems can even predict diseases and automate relevant farming tasks to help the plant thrive.
Grownetics is already applying this technology in some cultivation facilities and will make their AI and machine learning system commercially available by the end of this year. The company is also working to develop a system that stacks crops in vertical layers (called vertical cropping), as opposed to single-layer farms. With the proper research, they’re expecting this technology to become even more efficient than regular indoor cultivation, since it allows a single facility to host a lot more plants in tighter spaces, opening the way to urban farming: the possibility to grow in urban areas, and hence, improving distribution costs.
Plant Vision is another company that’s looking to improve the cultivation process — in this case, through augmented reality (AR). The company has developed a platform that allows farmers to retrieve sensor information and obtain AI recommendations by simply looking at the plants.
Using AR glasses, growers can look at each plant’s information while working on them with their hands. Through the glasses, the information appears next to the plant, without the need to go back to a monitoring station or check a hand-held device. This allows farmers to have their hands free to perform work on the plant, like adding nutrients, applying pesticides, retrieving samples for analysis, or taking manual measurements.
Currently, Plant Vision is focused on developing custom solutions on high level facilities, like breeders labs and research stations. However, founder Ryan Hooks is expecting the AR technology to become commonplace within the next couple years for regular indoor and outdoor facilities, both in the cannabis and food industries.
Big Data and AI for the Medical Industry
PotBotics has positioned itself as one of the biggest names in the industry when it comes to implementing AI for the medical cannabis industry. Traditionally, scientists perform studies on small groups of people, to draw results that are then extrapolated to general populations. Though this is still the accepted method of research for most science institutions, biotech companies in the cannabis environment are taking advantage of Big Data capabilities to perform their own research. Big Data is a method of acquiring large sets of information from different sources (usually through the internet) in order to draw conclusions based on factual evidence that allow machine learning software to develop predictions for the future. Basically, it’s a way to analyze very big sets of information and organize them into understandable, usable deductions.
Back in 2016, PotBotics released BrainBot, a device that measures a patient’s brain activity and creates an EEG profile that is used to find the best strain available for that particular person. However, the company decided to put the product on hold: They needed more data. “We’ve put a pause on BrainBot’s national roll-out so that we can build a complementary suite of technology around it to ease the physician education process," PotBotics CEO David Goldstein told Civilized. "Physicians basically need to know a little bit more about cannabis before they can jump in and start doing the type of analysis that we’re looking to do with our EEG apparatus.”
So that’s where the RYAH inhaler comes in. As one of PotBotics’ subsidiaries, RYAH's dose-measuring vaporizer tracks every aspect of the patient’s consumption, including strain, temperature, and dosage, and allows doctors to remotely access that information and have control over the patient’s intake by setting the device’s dosage themselves. With RYAH and other products, PotBotics is generating a vast network of data aggregation that can be applied through AI to better understand the way cannabis works in the human organism.
Yet, it took PotBotics a few years to find the best way to achieve their goals. The company’s first product was an AI engine that analyzes peer-reviewed studies on cannabis through natural language processing (which means to automatically interpret written language and turn that into hard data).
All of that data was then contrasted against user-generated reports to build a corpus of anecdotal evidence that adds real-life experiences to scientific studies done on limited populations. Like this, the scientific community is able to check the facts presented by the studies by expanding the research spectrum to more people who were not part of the original study.
BrainBot and RYAH take an objective view of those results by gathering exact measurements instead of relying on the subjective experiences laid down on user-generated reports.
“This data is fascinating because it’s no longer just someone saying, 'Hey I feel better from what I think is Sour Diesel.' We can track that back to the farm, back to the lab test, at what temperature, and how much they inhaled, and then ask them 'Hey, how are you feeling?'" said Goldstein.“So it’s the first step towards getting qualitative, objective information in a way that has never really been analyzed before.”
Working with a network of e-commerce sites, Namaste Technologies is taking a similar approach to bringing Big Data solutions to the medical cannabis community. The company, which owns 30 cannabis e-businesses in 20 different countries, has developed an app called Uppy Cannabis Journal.
In the app patients are invited to journal their experiences after using different strains to treat their ailments and symptoms. Over time, the company’s AI software will be able to use that data to track evidence-based relations between patient’s profiles, symptoms and used strains, in order to provide the best possible strain recommendations. And since the platform is based on a machine learning algorithm, it can use its own recommendations as new data to improve itself.
Elevating the Consumer Experience Through Blockchain and AI
In today’s market, it’s hard for consumers to access all the information behind a product: Where was this cultivated? Who grew it? What process did they use? Did they use pesticides?
These questions can become even more complex if we imagine the entire path the product took along the supply chain, to end up in our hands: How was this extract produced? Did they follow regulations? Where was it processed? How was it transported? Was this lab tested?
Even if we’re completely sure the product is safe, a responsible consumer would dig in more deeply: How do I consume this? What will it do to me? How much should I take? Did other people try it? What are experts saying about it?
In late 2018, Lucid Green launched a platform designed to tackle the misinformation problem that exists behind cannabis retail, allowing consumers to be part of a safe and responsible consumer experience.
“Today, there’s a critical need to understand what is in the product that's in my hand, and how do I consume this safely, predictively and to the best possible experience," Paul Botto, president and co-founder of Lucid Green, told Civilized.
The brands that decide to include Lucid Green’s QR code into their packaging allow consumers to scan a product and instantly access a multi-layered page of information that includes potency, user reviews, batch number, lab testing, dosage recommendations, expected effects, and more.
“What we’re hoping is that our app makes consumers better at being consumers, because they start to understand the things that work best for them,” said Botto, who formerly lead the team that developed Google Analytics.
Technology is allowing the cannabis industry to overcome some of the obstacles set by federal prohibition and state-level regulation. Because of cannabis’ current status as a Schedule I drug, performing medical and scientific research on the plant is extremely difficult and researchers are often met with many barriers that are delaying urgently needed research. By gathering information straight from the users, PotBotics and Namaste Technologies’ platforms compensate for the federal restrictions on clinical cannabis studies, by allowing lay people to anonymously participate in scientific research.
In the same way, Lucid Green’s solutions are giving brands a way to connect with consumers when most of the traditional marketing channels are blocked. Today, cannabis businesses wanting to reach their customers have a hard time getting their messages through, because many state regulations don’t allow cannabis brands to put up billboards, or advertise on the radio or TV. Meanwhile, Facebook and Google (the biggest advertising channels of the online world) have severe restrictions for cannabis ads.
“How do you build a relationship with the consumer if you can’t tell them about your product on radio, print, TV or Google?” Botto asked. "A big part of building brand affinity is building trust and transparency, so we’re giving them a channel to do that”. By being able to learn everything about a brand by simply scanning their product, brands get to set up a bond with their consumers, which is a crucial step towards achieving long-term success in a competitive market.
Lucid Green, he added, is implementing transparency through blockchain technology: “Blockchain is often oversimplified as a means towards cryptocurrency, but that’s a huge mistake that vastly undervalues its benefits as the ideal operating system for gathering, maintaining and distributing data," Botto said. "We wanted to take advantage of the blockchain capabilities of saying, 'Here’s a record of how this product was produced and tested,' which is not fungible, and always survives.”
Seed-to-Sale Tracking for Government Compliance
Consumers aren’t the only ones out there wanting to get their facts straight before jumping on the cannabis bandwagon. States are currently making their own requests, as well. And while consumers can make or break a market through the power of demand, state regulations can leave businesses locked out of the house before they even move in.
That’s why a new type of technology is thriving within the new world of cannabis: Seed-to-sale Tracking. This service is provided by companies that offer hardware/software solutions that help cannabis businesses keep precise track of every stage in a plant’s journey, all the way from cultivation to retail.
Since the legal cannabis industry emerged from a black market, legalization policies demand that businesses stay clean. Seed-to-sale tracking solutions offer businesses a comprehensive platform to make sure every company involved in their transactions follows government compliance throughout every step of the supply chain. In some cases, states demand that producers, distributors and dispensaries work with an approved seed-to-sale provider in order to demonstrate government compliance. In others, state governments have closed deals with specific seed-to-sale vendors.
Basically, companies like BioTrackTHC, MJ Freeway, Würk, Trellis and Metrc develop integrated systems that keep tabs on the plant’s material to make sure that everything being sold is legit. To do this, they’re able to assign unique identifiers to each individual plant or clone, and log every aspect of the growth process. After harvest, yield is recorded by weight, and then a register is kept of the final mass after trimming. Everything is tagged with a batch number and sent to production where extraction methods are also logged. Everything from pesticide use and lab test data to inventory and sales information is registered and identified on all products sold.
Patient or customer information is also tracked, which can then be linked to the plant’s first origin. With this method, state governments can ensure that cannabis businesses are compliant. This is not only beneficial for their consumers because it guarantees a safe product, but it’s also great for municipalities because it makes it easier to keep tabs for tax collection and helps them keep the federal agencies off their back, through proof of transparency and compliance.
However, although seed-to-sale companies are usually hired for compliance purposes, they offer many other solutions that can help businesses improve their operations, since these platforms also provide simple ways to manage payroll, hiring, employee retention, timekeeping, scheduling, tax compliance, keeping track of expiration dates, product recalls, and test results. They can even allow producers to learn how their products are selling, and dispensaries to find out which producers are making it into the best-selling podium.
Looking at the current state of affairs for the cannabis industry, we can easily say that it's no longer "all about the plant." Today, it's about using the latest resources to build the foundations of an industry that provides safe and reliable solutions for businesses and consumers alike.