Saturday, December 23, 2006

The Robotics of Place

The following is only slightly reworked from three posts I wrote, one after the other, in 1999. These posts together formed the starting point of a topic with the surprising title "The Robotics of Place" (originally in The WELL's Whole Earth conference).

Don't let the title scare you off. There's more here than might at first be apparent.

There's much to suggest that the original condition of human beings was nomadic - maybe over a fairly limited range, but seldom entirely sedentary.

First farming, then cities, with the investment of time and effort they embody, made moving about with the seasons less appealing. But in modern times
we seem to have replaced both nomadism and attachment to place with a sort of serial squatting, staying a few months in one place and a few years in
another, but generally without the deep connections that come from spending one's whole life in the same place and among the same people.

But we aren't likely to ween ourselves from dependence on stationary infrastructure anytime soon, not even with the recently booming popularity of mobile devices, and in that realization is the germ of the thought I hope to develop here: people want the benefits of infrastructure, without being bogged down by it.

And, increasingly so as time goes on, infrastructure means not just brick and mortar, but something active.

Asimov described a planet sparsely inhabited by people who were heavily dependent on technology, who each had substantial land holdings which were cared for by robots.

All very scifi, but the connection between machine and place rings true.

Most of us cringe at the idea of a life devoted to looking after a plot of ground, yet the ground needs looking after, particularly in and near cities. How strange is it really to propose that machines will inherit this task, probably sooner rather than later?

Here are some examples of familiar technological intrusions on the landscape: roads, bridges, dams, irrigation ditches, water and sewer lines, storm drains, tilled fields, fences, hedgerows, terraces, power lines, rail beds, mines, harvested forests (and those replanted with less than their original diversity), not to mention buildings.

We've never much hesitated to impose our notions on the world around us, but until recently we did so personally, typically using the biggest time-saving levers we could find. Only we (and a few domesticated allies, like sheepdogs) could provide the element of attentive activity, for lack of which one built environment after another has reverted back to a wild state, generally an impoverished one. We're good at dreaming up grand designs, and we like having things neat and tidy, but we tire of maintenance, and are more than a little stingy about paying for it.

In suggesting that we embrace a robotic approach to land maintenance, I'm also implying an eventual end to capricious land use, with grand new schemes equating to changes in programming that would result in gradual modifications of the landscape, rather than sudden, gaping scars that take decades to heal.

For discussion, go to the Cultibotics Group.

Saturday, December 02, 2006

balancing a blog and a group

As already mentioned elsewhere, until recently I'd been something of an online recluse, confining my nonpassive participation almost exclusively to The Well, although I've had some web presence there for most of the time since late 1995.

Then, last summer, I ventured out, and in short order accumulated a MySpace account (since canceled), a Google Group, and three Blogger blogs, including this one. Luckily, I quit adding new projects as soon as I began to feel overwhelmed, so the result turns out to be manageable, although it didn't feel like it for awhile.

Anyway, to get to the point, I've decided to attempt to maintain all four of these projects.

For this blog, since it's on the same topic as the group, I've turned off comments. I'll post ideas and news both here and in the group, and encourage anyone moved to reply to go to the group to do so, since the tools provided there better support discussion.

For the time being, you can view the Cultibotics Group using the new, improved, beta version of the Google Groups software via this link.

Monday, October 16, 2006

not out of nothing: what prompted this blog

As already mentioned, the general idea of applying robotics to the detailed management of productive land has been batting around in my head for years, and I've gone on about it at some length on various occasions, generally behind the walls of The WELL.

Not all of The WELL hides behind a wall, of course. (see "Guest-readable Conferences"), and, as it happens, one recent example (see last paragraph) happened in a world-viewable conference.

Thursday, September 28, 2006

cultibotics group

There's been some recent activity in the Cultibotics Group, so I'm now pondering how to handle both a group and a blog.

I think what's going to happen is that the blog becomes a condensed version of what's posted in the group, with new material occasionally appearing here first, but not necessarily so.

I'll aim to keep the information density high here; that much I'm sure of.

Sunday, September 10, 2006

open source robotics toolkits

IBM developerWorks is a great resource.

This article discusses open source software for modeling and testing robotic designs in software.

(Found on AI Buzz.)

four football fields...every single blade of grass

Think I'm crazy in suggesting in suggesting that a machine could track every single plant over an area of several acres? This Digg item says this experimental camera can image "every single blade of grass" over an area of "four football fields" in one shot.

Granted that they're using chemical film in the camera itself, but that film is scanned as soon as it's processed, and all subsequent image manipulation is done digitally. The file resulting from a full-resolution scan of one such film is 24 GB, which does push the limits of current technology a bit.

While really not at all the same as what a cultibot would do in cataloging all of the plants within the area it tended, this does suggest that the level of complexity involved is within the reach of either current technology or what's just around the corner. Maybe the database for a five-acre plot would occupy a few terabytes, but even that isn't unmanageable.

Saturday, September 09, 2006

robotics in transportation

While my primary interest in robotics is as it relates to horticulture and agriculture, I've also long been interested in the potential utility of robotics in urban transportation, especially when combined with a different sort of infrastructure from what we now have.

So when I saw a pointer to a Spiegel article titled Bringing Robot Transportation to Europe on Slashdot, I had to see what it was about.

As it turns out, that article describes a type of system which the Innovative Transportation Technologies website has been tracking for a decade.

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

what's happening in robotics

There are too many robotics related websites to catalog them all. Here are few of them...

IEEE Robotics and Automation Society's Technical Committee on Service Robots website contains a page dedicated to Agriculture & Harvesting Robots, with many links to related activities around the world.

Arrick Robotics's website has a long list of robotics clubs. One of those, the San Francisco Robotics Society of America has a particularly interesting website., Robot Gossip, and are robotics news blogs.

Artificial Intelligence News, just what it says it is.

I only plan to cover developments which are at least plausibly related to the application of robotics to crop cultivation, except perhaps as a bit of news is so compelling that I can't help but mention it.

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

on the meaning of "cultivation"

As it commonly applies to raising plants, "cultivation" usually refers to a process involving the manipulation of soil, to incorporate plant residues into the soil after the previous harvest, to prepare a seedbed for new planting, or between the rows of a growing crop to suppress weeds. That aspect, the manipulation of soil, isn't particularly emphasized, it's just assumed, like breathing; it's seen as being inextricably part of the process, not every time the farmer enters a field, but sooner or later, and repeatedly. "Tillage" is a synonym for this sense of the word.

There's a more general sense of "cultivation" that simply refers to raising plants, and which applies as much to the practices of nomadic tribes, involving no more tillage than poking seed holes in the ground with a sharp stick, as it does to agriculture as it is commonly practiced today.

It's that second, more general sense of the word that's intended here, as the potential advantages of using robotics in horticulture and agriculture stem largely from making it possible to dispense with the other sense of the word, tillage.

That's not to say that a cultibot wouldn't perform soil manipulation, rather what's expected is that it will resemble what a gardener performs with a hoe, trowel, and (occasionally) shovel, instead of what a farmer performs with a plow, and that the total amount of energy involved in performing it will be a small fraction of what the current practice of farming consumes -- and the rate of energy consumption even lower, since autonomous operation will allow it to be distributed over more time, perhaps even 24/7. (This combination of lower energy requirements and more time should make solar panels a practical power source.)

There's yet another sense of the word, as it applies reflexively or to human relationships, as in the cultivation of patience or friendship, which should at least inform how the vision of cultibotics is understood. In its fully realized state, a cultibot would not only raise plants and produce food, but it would tend the land in all its aspects, specifically including as it also serves as habitat for wild species, both plants and animals. This could be seen as cultivating a field's participation in the larger environment, making a little room among the crops for other life.

Thursday, August 17, 2006

robotic master gardeners

This blog is about a vision of a future in which the tending of productive land has been turned over to autonomously operating machines that approach this task much like a master gardener would, one plant or one small patch at a time.

Potential advantages include reduction or elimination of the need for petroleum-based fuels, fertilizer, and pesticides, an increase in the variety and value per acre of crops produced, a huge improvement in the sustainability of agriculture, and a revitalization of rural society through a more interesting, varied environment and the creation of technical jobs (maintenance, etc.). Detailed, automated land management could also help rescue endangered plant species from the brink of extinction.

I'll be gradually filling out this vision and substantiating each of the points above, while at the same time mentioning any related developments I might learn about and accumulating a list of related efforts (academic, commercial, etc.).