Summit Interview with Joseph Russo, PhD., ZedX Co-founder and Head of Research and Model Development at BASF

Prognosticators tell us that the current wave of information technologies will create a level of social change equivalent to that of the industrial revolution. Dr. Joseph Russo knows this too well since he has participated in the development of information tools for agriculture for over 35 years. Joe remembers his university days in the early 1980s when vans with Loran satellite dishes needed to be parked nearby a field just to capture geographic information systems (GIS) data for scouting observations. While he and his graduate students proved, along with other pioneers in precision agriculture, that field data could be collected geographically with a satellite signal, early attempts were neither practical nor cost-effective. This conflict between what is possible versus what is practical in terms of a new technology has played out over the last three decades in production agriculture.

With literally hundreds of million dollars being invested in information technologies today, it is hard to imagine that small companies, such as the one founded by Joe, were the innovation leaders in agriculture.

Entrepreneurs, like Joe, had to convince companies and government agencies to take a chance on a new way of collecting data. They had to painstakingly work in the field with growers to make sure equipment was hooked up correctly, software was installed and configured properly, and data was securely stored on the appropriate hardware. Furthermore, they had to analyze the georeferenced data in a way that helped growers make better production decisions. And most challenging, they had to convince growers that the data collected, using technology, was worth the investment. In other words, that it was worth paying for information recorded in a new way.

It may surprise many people that the adoption of information technologies by the agricultural community has remained relatively flat until very recently. This slow adoption was due not only to the time commitment and cost for implementation, but also due to the various technologies not being integrated. This incompatibility among technologies meant that anything new could not be easily incorporated into an existing operation. Because of this barrier, growers and other stakeholders were resistant to try something new for fear that the next addition would mean replacing their current technology tools.

Big Integration – a heavy lifter of data.

Today, some would argue that “big integration” has overtaken “big data.” More companies are being formed to manage data from diverse sources and provide analysis tools such as machine learning to create information for decision making. This push for integration of technologies does two things. First, it addresses the incompatibility problem. Second, it streamlines the movement of data and resultant information from source to the final user. Integration does the “heavy lifting” of data, which will allow for a grower or other stakeholder to plug into the flow of information and begin making evidence-based decisions. Plus, integration makes for cost effective solutions for information gathering and delivery.

More companies are being formed to manage data from diverse sources and provide analysis tools such as machine learning to create information for decision making.

Near Future Horizon

In the very near future, Joe sees the day coming where growers and other production influencers will be making decisions based not on data itself but on scenarios that are sustainable and have outcomes of known probability. For example, modeling and field scouting may indicate a favorable period and choices of chemical applications to prevent a disease infection. Each choice would be presented with a probability of success in terms of sustainability and profitability.

A grower would make an informed choice and the integrated technologies with their underlying data processing would apply the selected chemical at the proper time in the field. Everyone wins with scenario decision making. The grower makes an informed decision based on outcomes with known risks and a company has the right chemical applied at the right time for the right reason. The decision making is efficient and cost-effective for all parties.

Artificial intelligence (AI)

Artificial intelligence (AI) will equal and likely surpass grower experience in making good production decisions.

Of course, like the industrial revolution, the information revolution will change how we do business and affect our social norms. Artificial intelligence (AI) will equal and likely surpass grower experience in making good production decisions. Devices and machines, both in the air and on the ground, will play a bigger role in collecting and crunching data into information for decision making.

They will also take over field tasks currently done by laborers.  Chemical applications will be turned over to autonomous sprayers. With an ever-expanding infrastructure of integrated technologies, knowledge will surpass skill in value. In the end, the new norm for many agricultural stakeholders will be one of constant learning in a continually changing information environment.

Joseph Russo, PhD., will be speaking on how AI and other disruptive technologies are revolutionizing the business of agriculture for predicting and delivering a more sustainable and reliable food supply for our future,” at the RSI AI Sustainable Futures Summit on March 28, 2018. For more information or to purchase tickets, visit