Saturday, July 27, 2013

“Don't worry, we know what we're doing.”

Frankly, this assurance, the claim on the part of "experts" (those who are in the business) that they know what they're doing, is more often false than true, at least insofar as the implication is that they know all there is to know about the consequences of their beliefs, choices, and actions.

Which "experts" you ask. What business? It's an observation about people and the nature of knowledge, so it hardly matters, except as the stakes may be higher in some cases than in others. One such case is the set of practices collectively known as modern agriculture, which includes the use of GMOs, pesticides, herbicides, and concentrated fertilizers, and which, because it is applied over such a large area, can fairly be characterized as an experiment being conducted on the planet – the only planet we have.

In an article published on the Scientific American website, Professor Nina Fedoroff of the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology and Pennsylvania State University, states the following:

Most early alarms about new technologies fade away as research accumulates without turning up evidence of deleterious effects. This should be happening now because scientists have amassed more than three decades of research on GM biosafety, none of which has surfaced credible evidence that modifying plants by molecular techniques is dangerous.

On this point, Professor Fedoroff is clearly speaking from expertise, but notice that the issue she addresses is whether the process of modifying plants by molecular techniques is inherently dangerous, not whether specific modifications might be so. In the same paragraph, Fedoroff goes on to fume somewhat recklessly:

One scare story based on a bogus study suggesting a bad effect of eating GMOs readily trumps myriad studies that show that GM foods are just like non-GM foods.

Further on she states:

Herbicide-tolerant crops have made a major contribution to decreasing topsoil loss by facilitating no-till farming. This farming method reduces CO2 emissions from plowing and improves soil quality.

At this point I must express gratitude, for her having mentioned the advantages of no-till farming, but there are better ways to manage it than through the application of herbicides. There's the matter of reduction in yields when herbicides are applied and the plants must invest energy in resisting them. Also one must wonder how much attention has been given to the question of whether the genetic modification which provides plants with resistance might itself be problematic, perhaps resulting in byproducts which are toxic to animals and humans. Returning for a moment to an earlier passage, Fedoroff claims:

We can now use these methods to make precise improvements by adding just a gene (or two or a few) that codes for proteins whose function we know with precision.

This is blatant conceit. The proteins genes code for commonly have more than a single function in the development and/or physiology of an organism, and may also have collateral effects that wouldn't be termed "functions". To say that one knows the function of a protein "with precision" is to claim to to know all potential effects of that protein under all conceivable conditions. In her conclusion Fedoroff displays almost childlike naiveté regarding corporate veracity and commerce:

If the popular mythology about farmer suicides, tumors and toxicity had an ounce of truth to it, these companies would long since have gone out of business. Instead, they’re taking more market share every year. There's a mismatch between mythology and reality.

I do not suspect Professor Fedoroff of being a complicit apologist for industry, but I do suspect her of habitually misplaced trust.

Reposted from Lacy Ice + Heat.

Sunday, July 07, 2013

can robotics help make farming a less dangerous occupation?

If your notion of what robots are like comes from movies and television, or reports about drone strikes, you might think I'm daft for even suggesting that the application of robotics to agriculture might make it a safer occupation.

Well, granting that some of those fictional portrayals are poignant warnings about particular potential developments in robotics, they aren't representative of the field as a whole. Most robots currently in existence are either the industrial variety, isolated from people because they aren't designed to recognize our presence, or vacuum sweepers – too small and light to do any serious damage to an adult, so, provided you don't allow an infant to crawl on the floor one of them is cleaning, it makes little difference if they can't tell a person from a bookcase.

On the farm, robotic technologies have been finding their way into tractors and other large equipment, but mostly not yet the sorts of technologies that would allow such equipment to identify a human in their path. So, at this stage, to the extent that these machines are left to drive themselves, one might argue that they are actually less safe than equivalent machines under the direct control of human operators. Perhaps, perhaps not. The straight lines, smooth curves, and complete coverage with minimal overlap those automatic guidance systems produce require considerable concentration when performed by a human operator, not leaving much spare attention for the path ahead, and continuous concentration tends to make the mind wander. This is why you'll occasionally see human-operated equipment lose the pattern and go rambling across a field at odd angles, until the driver snaps to and gets it back on track.

A more interesting question than whether robotic technology currently in use results in greater or lesser safety for a bystander is whether there might be a point, in the improvement of such technology, beyond which one is safer standing in the path of a tractor than riding in the cab. Tractors are rather easy to overturn; they sometimes catch fire; they occasionally get hit by lightning; they rock, lurch, buck, vibrate, and produce a mind-numbing noise. Hydraulic fluid spraying out of a crack can cut through flesh. Unguarded PTO shafts can grab loose clothing and pull the wearer to their death. Tractors are built for raw torque and force, and possess a potential for mayhem comparable to a bulldozer, in the event their operators should pass out or otherwise become incapacitated.

Automated guidance systems can sound an audible alert as they are nearing the end of a row, and shut down if the operator doesn't respond, but there's a lot more that can be gained from the utilization of robotic technologies. A whole range of sensors is available, from ordinary digital video to infrared to LIDAR, and a good deal of work has already gone into integrating the information provided by multiple sensors. Even better, these technologies are moving towards being reasonably priced off-the-shelf plug-ins, as with the Kinect. Millimeter radar, when it becomes widely available, will add another, extraordinarily useful option.

Tractors and other such large equipment present a special challenge in that, in operation, they are nearly always surrounded by a cloud of dust. Moreover, the nature of that dust varies depending on the type of rock form which the mineral portion of the soil weathered, or whether the source of the dust is soil disturbance (tillage) or rough handling of dry plant material (harvesting). A technology that effectively penetrates one sort of dust may not work well when confronted with another. Stereo sensors and processing which extracts useful information from noisy data will undoubtedly be important components of any thoroughly adequate solution.

So much for adapting robotic technologies to conventional equipment. In my opinion the greatest gains in safety are to be had from reducing the size and power of the equipment in use, refocusing on detailed operations like planting single seeds, pruning single twigs and leaves, picking pests one by one, and so forth. Such equipment would be inherently safer, since it simply wouldn't possess the capacity for wholesale destruction. There would still be issues, of course. A manipulator that can snip off a branch could do the same to a finger, and almost anything can be dangerous when near the eyes, but the scale of the threat imposed by smaller machines would be at least an order of magnitude lower, based on their capacity for mechanical force alone.

Additionally, these machines would be making fine-grained decisions, instead of simply running until directed to do otherwise. Each detailed operation would first need to pass a test as to whether it were a good use of the machine's time and available energy, then the motions comprising each operation would be crafted for efficiency and minimal disturbance of the surrounding environment, foliage included. If you're sensing and planning paths around branches and leaves, something as solid as a human will appear as inviolable as a brick wall. Layer on detection and avoidance of warm-blooded animals or vertebrates, and the result should be a very reliable safety regime.

There are other hazards around a farm besides the equipment, but robotics can, and sooner or later will, all but eliminate threats from that source.

Thursday, July 04, 2013

why green activists should support and help shape robotics

Call it what you like, organic farming, regenerative agriculture, agroecology, or whatever else, unless all you're talking about is green window dressing on otherwise conventional techniques, involving routine tillage and unrelieved stands of uniform annual crops, your going to find that most of the available equipment isn't well suited to the approach you're proposing.

Take permaculture for one example. Conventional agriculture knows something about permaculture, of course. There's orchards and vineyards, and a few crops, like asparagus, that regenerate annually from rhizomes. Plant the trees in rows, far enough apart that you can fit a small tractor between them, and you're in business. For perennial crops that are mown down annually, the row spacing can be half the track width of the equipment you're using, since that equipment can straddle the rows. This isn't optimal; the space between the rows generally goes unused. But this approach allows the use of familiar equipment.

On the other hand, if the crop you have in mind to grow is a perennial version of wheat (currently in development), and you're competing in a commodity market with others growing wheat in the usual manner, as an annual, that space lost to tracks for equipment wheels starts to be significant, cutting into your available acreage and, because margins for commodities are tight, profitability.

For another example, let's consider polyculture. One such that most people have at least heard about is the traditional mixture of maize, beans, and squash in the American southwest. Think about how you would handle this cropping system mechanically. Can all be planted at once, or will planting require multiple passes. Can you harvest the beans without damaging the maize or the squash? What about weeding?

Now consider a system incorporating both permaculture and polyculture, say growing your maize, beans, and squash in the spaces between apple trees. How will you get your equipment onto the land to get anything done at all? Perhaps make sure the wheels of your tractor and other equipment always follow the same tracks, but that's an awkward solution. A better solution would be to install elevated rails (expensive), or posts which could be used to support relocatable rails, or pads on which legged machines could place their weight.

The last of these approaches obviously requires robotic equipment, with articulated legs. The posts and movable rails approach also requires at least a robotic arm, to handle the rails. Permanent elevated rail could be used to suspend anything, but if you've gone to the expense of installing it you'll want the other advantages robotic equipment can offer.

Those other advantages derive from the potential of robotics to make the best practices of gardening scalable – practices an experienced gardener might apply on a quarter acre of land but not even attempt on a five acre plot, for lack of time. I've mentioned many of these at one time or another, but in a nutshell the option to make use of them is a function of how many eye/brain/hand-hours you can bring to bear per area per growing season.

Autonomous operation allows one person to delegate this work to multiple/many machines, which (assuming they aren't using energy-intensive techniques like plowing), can operate 24/7 if need be. Sensors substitute for eyes, processors for brains, and mechanical arms and manipulators for hands. Given these basics, robotic machinery can, for instance, pick slugs and larger insects instead of poisoning them, prune diseased/infested plant parts instead of spraying, and deal just as easily with a mixed stand including perennials as with a uniform crop.

To be blunt about it, if you want to reform agriculture, you're going to need a lot of help from robots, and the sooner you realize this and begin to participate in shaping the future of robotics, the better the outcome will be.