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Some things can’t be done without robots

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26 March 2011



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I had pretentions of being a back-to-the-land hippy before I ever became seriously interested in robotics, but my brother successfully popped that bubble with a simple, unarguable observation, that most people don’t want to go back to subsistence farming. So far as that went, he was right, but that didn’t make the abusive practices of modern agriculture acceptable. I didn’t have an answer, but I kept looking for one.

 

I had a pretty good idea of what computing was about from an introduction to CS class in which we wrote FORTRAN programs on cardpunches. At that scale there was no help to be found from that direction, but the advent of the microprocessor changed everything. Suddenly it became thinkable to have mobile devices each with its own electronic brain. My mind reeled with the possibilities, but there were a million unknowns.

 

One thing was clear, though, if Moore’s Law was even close to being correct it wouldn’t be long before the speed of the electronics was no longer the hangup. It would be the mechanical designs, the software, much of which would depend on transforming biological knowledge into computer code, and the chicken/egg problem of creating an industry and a market for that industry’s products at the same time.

 

And that’s pretty much where we are now. The speed of the electronics has so far exceeded the other pieces of the puzzle that even if we might wish for still more it’s a moot point. We’re not putting what’s available to good use.

 

Remember, we’re talking here about getting what we need from the land while honoring the back-to-the-land aesthetic of living lightly upon it, as a species, but not about people fleeing the cities to scratch out their personal livelihoods with whatever meager assemblage of skills they might manage to collect. That could be more destructive than factory farms.

 

The solution, really the only possible solution if we’re to stop soil erosion, ground water and stream contamination, the loss of biodiversity, and the gutting of rural culture, is robots. That’s right, robots.

 

Only by substituting machines which can be invested with some understanding of ecology – or which are at least well suited to play a role in an ecologically sound approach – for the dumb machines currently in use, can we have it all, our comfortable lives, a reliable supply of food of varied types, and a clear conscience.

 

I’d love to be telling you about all of the cool developments in cultivation robotics, how this team had succeeded in building a system that could differentiate between closely related species immediately upon sprouting, and how another had created a tiny robot that ran on the body fluids of the aphids it consumed. I wish I could report that the USDA had funded research into intermingling rare and endangered native species with crop species and making room for moderate wildlife populations without sacrificing too much commercial productivity. Heh, at least I can truthfully say it could happen, which seemed pretty far fetched just one year ago.

 

Realistically, though, nearly all of that sort of work remains to be done, and it’ll be a great ride when it finally does begin to happen!



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John Payne





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