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Practical Magic

When was the last time you chatted with your CIO, CTO or CDO?

John Deere tractor and planter

The John Deere 8RX Tractor and a 60-foot, 24-row planter. The two pieces of equipment — which cost about $750,000 combined — incorporate more than 300 sensors and 140 controllers. Courtesy of John Deere

As a not-quite-reformed technology journalist, I’ve attended the annual Consumer Electronics Show (or distance-stalked the news) for more years than I care to remember.?

As my colleague Katie Fehrenbacher reported last week, the nation’s biggest trade show became a beacon for automotive players a few years ago. Over the years, it also has become a place to trumpet and debate the benefits and possibilities of artificial intelligence and the internet of things — most particularly, the combination of the two.?

During the press conference for its latest vehicle technology, for example, executives for German company Bosch talked up how what it calls AIoT (or artificial intelligence plus the internet of things) has helped plant managers reduce the carbon emissions of its factory in Homburg, Germany, by 10 percent over the past two years. That technology is being introduced at more than 100 locations, including its site in Charleston, South Carolina.

"This industrial artificial intelligence is about explaining the physical world to machines," noted Michael Bolle, the company’s chief digital officer and chief technology officer, during his presentation. The recently created Bosch Climate Solutions is marketing several related systems, including a cloud-based energy management platform focused on reducing the energy consumption of production processes.

AI and automation are also part of the glue for a series of technologies that were talked up by agtech giant John Deere during its CES presentations. I had the chance to virtually experience some of its latest developments as part of a demonstration delivered over an Oculus headset with a live voiceover from Deanna Kovar, vice president of production and precision agriculture.

During the 45-minute session, I got up close and virtual-personal with the company’s 8RX Tractor and a 60-foot, 24-row planter. The two pieces of equipment — which cost about $750,000 combined (not a minimal investment) — incorporate more than 300 sensors and 140 controllers, which can process 15,000 measurements per second per machine.?

Given the explosion in digitization, it makes all sorts of sense for sustainability leaders to be chatting more often with the technology leaders within their company.

One of these tractor-planter combinations can plant more than 700 corn seeds or 2,800 soybeans per second — all at the precise depth and spacing required for the plant and soil. A "traditional" U.S. farmer in the midwest probably would need one of them to cover about 2,000 acres, Kovar estimated.?

Oodles of data are being collected and cultivated by John Deere technologies such as these. In one day of spring planting, the John Deere team processes between 5 to 15 million sensor measurements every second — across the various systems using its cloud services (yes, you need the service to do this).?

The main focus of my conversation with Kovar was crop yields and efficiency, but there are other benefits to this technology and related ones — from precise application of water or fertilizer to new approaches to tillage and soil cultivation. You almost could envision scenarios in which these sensors could be used to measure other metrics, such as soil carbon. As I’ve opined in the past, precision ag will be key to pulling off regenerative ag at scale. This is another demonstration of that.

Both the Bosch example and the John Deere systems speak to the growing importance of digital technologies in managing processes across a wide range of industries. In its CES pitches, Bosch cites Accenture research (German) (conducted on behalf of a local industry group) that suggests digitization could help deliver almost half of Germany’s climate goals — especially when applied to mobility, building, energy, agriculture and health.

The big tech players, of course, have been touting this scenario for some time: Amazon, Google and Microsoft are all investing in R&D efforts focused on the application of AI for tasks such as combating deforestation, identifying species or predicting the future impact of climate change. But plenty of corporate applications deserve urgent attention, and they probably have a lot to do with your company’s information technology functions.

One of the new 2030 climate goals for software company VMware, for example, is to work with its customers to improve the "workload carbon efficiency" of its IT operations and move toward "zero-carbon cloud" services.?

VMware develops technology that allows companies to "virtualize" servers, so businesses can optimize the use of computing hardware in their data centers. It sees sustainability integrated tightly with the future of business, which is one reason its vice president for environmental, social and governance, Nicola Acutt, reports to the company’s chief technology officer. "My explicit charter is to work with the business units on functions that are now embedded in their objectives," Acutt told me when we caught up last week.

One side effect of all the net-zero goals that have been set by a who’s-who list of giant multinational companies in the past two years will be the need for their organizations to all become far better about measuring and accounting for the effects of climate change. Couple that reality with the massive acceleration that we’ve just experienced because of the COVID-19 pandemic — McKinsey figures it has speeded the adoption of digital processes by three to four years — and it feels as if we’re at a tipping point.?

One area I’ve already seen plenty of activity (fodder for another column) is for carbon accounting tools, software that promises to capture this information more accurately and in near real-time — or at least far nearer to real time than the once-a-year data digging that sustainability teams are forced to engage in right now.

Given this explosion in digitization, it makes all sorts of sense for sustainability leaders to be chatting more often with the technology leaders within their company, someone (or someones) who can help your team understand what’s inside the head of the chief information officer or chief digital officer. As sustainability becomes more integrated into core business functions, this is one area you can’t afford to overlook.

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