How a former Microsoft researcher used AI to grow lettuce from 5,000 miles away

It’s pretty impressive to grow lettuce in a greenhouse competition against 42 teams from nearly two dozen countries. It’s even more remarkable when you do it from 5,000 miles away.

Koidra, a Seattle-based “AI of things” startup, this summer won the international Autonomous Greenhouse Challenge — its second time claiming the title. The contest was held at the Netherlands’ Wageningen University & Research. Add to all of that the fact that Koidra founder Kenneth Tran is new to farming and food production. Frankly, he can seem a little ambivalent about it. “I came to agriculture really from the technology and industrial control standpoint,” said Tran, who is Koidra’s CEO and chief technology officer.

While not an ardent green thumb, Tran knows the technology piece in spades. He has degrees in math and computer science. His previous job was as a principal applied scientist for Microsoft Research for more than seven years. His passion is for reinforcement learning, or RL, which is a subdomain of machine learning. Reinforcement learning, he explained, is about real-time decision-making and optimization, whereas most ML is classification and prediction.

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