Saturday, September 14, 2013

real potential vs. hype

Whenever one recognizes unrealized potential in some new development, there is a temptation to attempt to bring it into being by overselling it, glossing over the difficulties of making that potential real and promising greater benefit and less collateral damage than is actually likely to result.

This is an even more poignant issue in robotics than in other fields, as robots have long been a favorite, abundant source of material for authors and screenwriters, who invest them with whatever qualities and capabilities serve their purposes, frequently without giving serious thought to the engineering effort which would be required to produce these attributes. Consequently, the general public is somewhat confused about and unimpressed by the current state of the art.

Since starting this blog, just over seven years ago, I've tried to make it clear that I've been talking about technology that is clearly within reach but, for the most part, not yet in existence. Over that seven years there has been significant progress, in the technology, and even more so in my own cognizance of the current state of that technology and of ongoing research and development work.

Even so, I still find myself faced with the conundrum that by pointing with such certainty to a potential that can only be fully realized through an iterative development process founded on intensive collaboration between two groups of people who as yet hardly even talk to each other (roboticists and horticulturists) I undermine my own credibility and that of the vision I strive to share.

Nevertheless I am certain, more certain that ever, that machines capable of performing the full range of gardening tasks autonomously can be developed, and that a combination of automated factories and economies of scale can make them competitively affordable, as compared with the combined costs of continuing practices which are currently so dominant as to seem anointed and unassailable.

Above all I am certain that this approach to crop production and land management can be the essential ingredient enabling solutions to a whole set of intractable problems, from malnutrition and (lack of) food security to rural poverty to dwindling biological diversity to spreading deserts to contamination of air, streams, and oceans.

It is unfortunate that many of those who might read this would see it as hype, for it is nothing of the sort. It is simply the recognition of a crucial potential inherent in the development of robotics, and the attempt to infect others with that recognition, rendered imperative by the gravity of its implications.

Therefore I persevere.