Sunday, February 01, 2015

The costs and benefits of a 'moonshot' project

I've recently come to the conclusion that what I've been proposing in this blog is essentially equivalent to President Kennedy's proposal that the United States should mount a space exploration effort sufficient to send an astronaut on a round trip to the Moon within the decade, at a time when many people still believed such an enterprise to be impossible, despite that, for experts, it had clearly become a matter of doing the engineering, and only the timeline was in doubt, not the objective.

Similarly, while we don't yet have the technology to accomplish the economic robotic performance of horticultural best practices on the scale of agriculture, it's quite clear that no fundamental obstacle stands in the way of developing such technology. We have only to apply ourselves, as roboticists and as citizens supporting their efforts (private, corporate, academic, and governmental citizens), to the project.

I've already addressed many benefits we might expect such a project to produce, directly, as a result of success in the goal of creating the technology necessary to accomplish scaling up those best practices. What I haven't yet more than mentioned in passing, are the spinoffs that can be expected, even if we can't predict what most of them might be in advance.

It's widely understood that the Apollo program produced spinoffs that, taken together, amounted to a huge contribution to the economy, perhaps even more than offsetting the cost of the program itself, not least being the concentration of engineering expertise in US universities and US-based corporations.

Similarly, a determined effort to develop the necessary technologies to support, for example, polyculture incorporating perennials, can be expected to produce numerous spinoffs along the way, not the least of which would be a generation of engineers versed in the many technologies which are collectively referred to as robotics, with the confidence to apply those technologies to the tough problem of cleaning up the environmental damage humanity has done over the past few centuries.

While measured in millions of dollars, perhaps even hundreds of millions to a few billion per year, the cost of underwriting the R&D to accomplish all this would be minor compared with the cost of the Apollo program (in inflation-adjusted dollars), in part because of the far more modest scale of the resources required. Compared to the cost of recent military campaigns it would be paltry. Most importantly, in comparison with the costs of failing to do so, of leaving the future to fend for itself, it would be inconsequential. We cannot afford not to do it!

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