Friday, August 09, 2013

if it'll happen eventually anyway, why worry?

I am reasonably confident that something resembling my vision for the application of robotics to agriculture will eventually happen, so why do I even bother trying to call attention to it?

The question isn't whether it will happen, but how soon and, more importantly, how much further damage will be done before it does finally happen?

How soon is largely a function of resources, both public and private, for R&D. Public funding is somewhat problematic at the moment, of course, with the government in danger of being shut down through the inept stubbornness of certain congress-critters. Assuming that doesn't happen there may be a little money available here and there, through ongoing programs, but we're not talking about a determined effort such as that which put men on the moon. Appropriate as it might be, that sort of approach just isn't in the cards for now.

On the other hand, private money could be more than enough to get things moving. No doubt investors are a little gun shy, given the legal battles still underway in the smartphone industry, and leery of tying up their money in the hope of a payoff that might not come for a decade, maybe even two. The first concern could be eased somewhat by the establishment of a FRAND-based IP consortium. The worry over time-to-payoff could be addressed by identifying development milestones that would be marketable in specific circumstances, as Harvest Automation has done, beginning to generate a revenue stream while still deeply engaged in development.

The question of additional damage is both more looming and more difficult to wrap one's mind around. The variety and scale of environmental insults being perpetrated by conventional agriculture are staggering, and yet this is business as usual. Even if every element of a viable alternative were available today, it would still take time to convince many farmers of the need to change, time to replace equipment, and time to restore soil fertility. Meanwhile those with the most to lose, the chemical companies whose product portfolios read like a litany of sins, are likely to fight change tooth and nail, clinging to their poisonous, monopolistic business models as long as they possibly can.

So there is some cause for worry that by the time everyone is convinced of the need for change, there'll be precious little left to save, and we'll find ourselves surviving on tube-grown GM-algae and vat-grown meat, while weeds that have developed resistance to all of our poisons take over field after field from crops with too little remaining genetic diversity to cope with climate change in addition to everything else being thrown at them.

We need to make use of the best practices we can manage right now, given the small percentage of people engaged in agricultural production and type of equipment currently in their hands, and bring even better practices to bear as willing hands and robotic technologies make them possible in urban environments and on an agricultural scale. That is the path to saving all that can still be saved.

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