Yielding more with technology

19th May 2020


‘Environmental pressures, sustainability agendas, and veganism all represent potential catalysts for new technologies’: Simon Beck, Head of Digital at Origin Enterprises on where tech will be in ten years’ time.

Nikola Tesla, a man whose inventions paved the way for the generation and distribution of alternating current electricity, made a bold prediction for the future in 1937 when he stated confidently that “I am convinced that within a century coffee, tea, and tobacco will be no longer in vogue”. Coffee and tea consumption continues to rise globally, while tobacco sales fall.

So, where do I think technology will be in ten years’ time? Well, it’s the type of question that is easy to hate, as most predictions, from even the finest minds, turn out to be wrong.

In 1985, a psychologist called Philip Tetlock from University of Pennsylvania invited over 270 experts to assign probabilities what particular, well-defined events would happen in the near future. All were acknowledged leaders in their fields, and more than half held PhDs. Tetlock gathered thousands of predictions. And a few years later, he compared these predictions with that of group of undergraduates. Were they better? Only marginally. Why? Because predicting the future is complex, and the world features lots of variables interacting in wildly different ways.

Tetlock’s study revealed one further insight: The most celebrated experts – the kind you see in television studios, the published literati who go on book tours – they were the worst predictors of all the groups. As Tetlock put it “‘Ironically, the more famous the expert, the less accurate his or her predictions tended to be”.

Here’s the good news for me. I’m not a celebrated expert, not even in my own house.

In my career in technology, including leadership roles at Dell, Fujitsu, and others, I’ve seen apparent certainties fail, and clear leaders fall. Great ideas don’t make great investments, and don’t guarantee success. The younger members of my team probably never owned a Blackberry, a device which outsold the iPhone by a factor of three in 2007, and still sold over 50 million devices 2011. The problem was, in that 2011 year, the iPhone sold 93 million devices, and Blackberry sales fell off that all time annual high. They probably don’t remember MySpace, a social network which predated Facebook, and almost certainly not AOL, a provider of internet search, a creator of content, with an instant messenger system which was, basically, the precursor to every messaging app currently in operation. Where did it all go wrong? How did it go wrong, from these leadership positions?

So, what of technology in agriculture? What will come, what will realise benefits, what will sustain and create a long-term difference?

Farmers and agronomists can already access digital agronomy tools that improve in-field efficiency and productivity. From soil mapping that tells us about soil health, to optical satellite imagery that detects pests, weeds or diseases, to cloud penetrating radar that forecasts crop growth, technology has advanced to help farmers understand more about field and crop performance than ever before, and given us tools to manage these variations. Variable applications or prescription nutrition solutions make it easier to solve the problems we find working with advisors and agronomists. These tools and services don’t have industry wide adoption today, but are becoming cheaper, easier, and more accessible than ever before, so for those that aren’t taking advantage, maybe it’s time to look again.

Drones are now relatively old technology. They remain a matter of significant regulatory pressure constraining the ability to create mass adoption. While the existing regulations require a pilot and restrict weight the economics seem fundamentally flawed for most cereal crops.

It’s possible that high resolution imagery will be available from other sources, at scale, as satellite mounted sensors improve, and get cheaper, and the earth may be circled by high flying, autonomous, solar powered aircraft able to produce higher image resolutions at lower costs. These ‘stratospheric UAVs’ are already in testing and backed by industry giants like Airbus and BAE Systems, and seem an inevitable progression.

The rise of the robots is surely upon us, as the ability to put real intelligence and computing power at the ‘edge’ of the network – in fields and on devices – allows an autonomous device to detect and act on weeds and diseases at the moment of sensing.

Technology advances are always driven by a change agent. For disruptors like Uber, it was persistent data connectivity, and the invention of the iPhone and the app ecosystem. In agriculture, we can identify environmental pressures, and sustainability agendas, and the recent drive to veganism. All represent potential catalysts for new technologies. In the last ten years, each year except for 2011 has become one of the top 10 warmest years on record. It seems likely that the next ten years will follow a similar pattern, giving us both rising temperatures and greater extremes of rainfall, presenting new challenges – and new opportunities.

All these point in a single direction which I have high levels of certainty will drive the next ten years – the gathering and curation of agricultural data at scale. The key change will be in curation – data will be gathered in formats and structures which allow interoperability, which allow for better analysis, and which support a broad range of use cases. Farm data, once the preserve of the farmer and created for the farmers’ benefit, will now form part of the evidence base for governmental policy, will support the value chain, will support traceability and inform consumer behaviour, and may be required to access advantageous lending rates from finance. Data, when merged, and correlated, will inform decisions, and measure success, while enabling small decision to be measured for success. Organisations striving for success, from businesses to sports teams, actively seek out data to gather to allow for improvement. “When I first started in F1, we recorded eight channels of data. Now we have 16,000 from every single parameter on the car. And we derive another 50,000 channels from that data,” said Paddy Lowe, a Cambridge-educated engineer, who is currently the technical leader of Mercedes F1. “Each channel provides information on a small aspect of performance. It takes us into the detail, but it also enables us to isolate key metrics that help us to improve”.

For farmers and agriculture, the next decade will clearly be the ‘data decade’. A decade which will allow us to measure soil, crop, machinery, inputs, outputs, and consequences. Which will allow environmental outputs to be valued as commodities, and yielded to gain favourable results. And allow better farming, at a more granular level of spatial resolution, with greater certainty.

But let’s leave the last word to Nikola Tesla, and the final part of his prediction, which should provide some comfort to those growing barley, and those who like a tipple; “Alcohol,” he said, “Will still be used. It is not a stimulant but a veritable elixir of life”.

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