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The long, slow tipping point, or boiling frogs

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03 March 2008



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It’s said that if you raise the temperature slowly enough you can boil a frog alive and it will never jump out of the pot. True or not, it illustrates the idea of changes that happen so gradually we scarcely realize they’re happening [at all] and may fail to recognize when the accumulated change adds up to something qualitatively different.

 

In the context of agriculture and the potential for applying robotic technology to its improvement, this principle applies at least two ways.

 

The first of these, because it is happening regardless of anything else, is how agriculture has been changing over recent decades, and how the human culture of farming, rural society and the rural landscape, the robustness or fragility of the crops themselves, soil fertility, and biodiversity have changed as a result.

 

This is something of a mixed bag. For example, on the one hand you have a proliferation of poisonous substances used to control various pest species, but on the other you have the growing popularity of Integrated Pest Management, which uses them sparingly. And while some of the practices which became ubiquitous in the wake of the dust bowl have since become less common, the rising cost of fuel works in favor of lighter tillage, leaving some stubble, which helps control erosion.

 

Nevertheless, this situation looks rather bleak overall, particularly given the heavy dependence of agriculture on fuel and other products derived from petroleum, and a comparison between ourselves and the frog in the gradually warming water is a bit too apropos.

 

The other way in which the slow accumulation of change applies is in the development of the various tools and technologies needed for robotics in general to flourish. The array of what’s available for use is already good and getting better, if not quite rapidly then at least inexorably, and the more complete the toolkit the more applications become economically feasible, further accelerating the pace of development. At some point that logic is bound to take hold, powerfully and irreversibly, if not this year then maybe next year, or the year after, or maybe it’s already begun and just happening slowly enough that it’s hard to see.

 

Here too the boiling frog applies, in that the robotics industry could flourish without contributing anything significant to the improvement of agriculture. It could simply fail to live up to that particular potential, there being no shortage of other, more clearly profitable potentials to be chased after, and plenty of encouragement from DARPA with regard to military applications.

 

Here we are in the pot, with the general state of agriculture growing ever more tenuous and the industry with the power to transform that situation taking no notice, much less recognizing its all-important role.

 

[2012Oct13: I now know that the situation wasn’t quite as bleak as it seemed to me at the time, and that there are quite a few individual roboticists who are well aware of the potential robotics holds at least for facilitating horticulture, and a handful of robotics programs doing practical work in this direction.]

 

Reposted from Cultibotics.



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John Payne





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