The Hidden Risks of Autonomous Farming, Part 1

 In Farming, Featured, Verge Permaculture, Why Permaculture?

I thought it would be a good time to kick off 2018 with a piece looking at the future and the brave new world of autonomous farming.

But in order to look forward, let’s think like historians and ask a question of the past:

What do the pyramids and farming have in common?

The pyramids are one of the great mysteries of the world. We are still in the midst of figuring out the various construction techniques that were employed. Based on some recent pieces I’ve read, it turns out that at some point in Egyptian society, people began to forget how they were built. Imagine: A civilization capable of building such incredible structures, losing that knowledge within a few generations.

pyramids-giza

Now, the brain is very efficient at pruning information it doesn’t need in order to make space for more pertinent knowledge. To me, the most likely explanation for why Egyptian forgot pyramid construction techniques was that they either no longer needed to use them or they ran out of resources to put the knowledge to use. Within a few generations, the knowledge was not maintained, and society simply “forgot”.

The Concept of Progress Traps

a-short-history-of-progressRonald Wright, a Canadian anthropologist and author of A Short History of Progress, coined the term “progress traps” to help explain the phenomena of the pyramids and other similar examples throughout human history.

The story of hunters and gatherers adopting agriculture is a prime example of a progress trap. Agriculture allowed us to thrive and multiply, but there was a price to be paid for it. The longer we stayed with agriculture, the more we depended upon it and the less we retained knowledge on hunting and gathering. In effect, we were forced to continue to farm.

Progress traps are like one-way doors; once you go through the door locks behind you. There is no going back. As a daily smartphone user there are days where I feel like it’s a one-way door. Every week I threaten to get rid of it, but losing all my contacts and appointments in one handy device makes the notion seem impossible.

Ronald Wright’s point can be summed up in this quote below:

ronald-wright-quote-progress-trap

We’ve been falling into progress traps for thousands of years, and each time we fall into one, the price escalates. We now live in an era of disruption in the Anthropocene. As AI and robotics grow in sophistication and become mainstream, they will become ubiquitous in our everyday lives. Roomba vacuums. AI weight lifting machines. Self-driving cars and trucks. AI doctors and lawyers. The list will continue to grow.

Some futurists pair the concept of demonetization with hopes of democratization, believing that these technologies will span across all social classes and provide services once only available to the elite. I’m not sure history supports this assertion. Corporations invest in these technologies to derive profit – that’s how the current economic paradigm works. As these technologies spread across all domains, the intellectual properties will be owned by a smaller and smaller group of entities, individuals, and corporations. What happens if they disrupt the existing paradigms we rely on today so much that the future “forgets”?

Take doctors – one of the most difficult and expensive professions to get into. What happens if IBM’s Watson becomes the doctor of the future? What happens if the cost of diagnosis goes down while the quality goes up? Will humans abandon the notion of becoming physicians? Will we collectively “forget” how to do modern medicine in the same way Egyptians eventually lost the knowledge to construct pyramids?

Perhaps that might sound extreme, but I see this potentially happening in farming and the food system. We are now seeing AI harvesting machines, self-driving tractors, and backyard “farm bots” that grow, weed, and water gardens. This is just the tip of the iceberg in the coming years. Now, I don’t want to come across as a luddite. Humanity seems to harbour a driving force that pushes us to constantly innovate and improve. What I’m saying is that we should pause and think about how these disruptive technologies are shifting society. Here are some questions we should ask before sprinting forward:

1) What are the hidden black swans associated with relegating all food production to robotics?

2) Is food production important enough that we should subsidize a subset of farmers to continue to farm so that we maintain the knowledge base?

3) Is the constant move toward the lowest cost denominator always in the best interest of society at large?

4) Should we take a deep dive into the past and uncover the progress traps that we fell into and determine if we are in the midst of making similar one-way decisions in almost every human domain during this era of disruption?

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Showing 8 comments
  • bpoller

    Thanks Rob for your thought-provoking post, as usual. Automation in farming is something I have been thinking about a lot myself recently, as a systems engineer with a strong interest in permaculture and small-scale market farming. I completely agree with the risk identified of over-automating agriculture with the potential consequence of cultural loss of farming knowledge. The unfortunate part is that it is almost certainly going to happen for large-scale farming – we all know there is a massive and growing push, and huge corporate investment, to automate industrial-scale monoculture farming – it won’t be long before any landowner, of say a million acres, can just buy a robot tractor ‘app’ pre-programmed to ‘farm’ the land all in corn, or soy, etc – with zero knowledge needed of actual farming or ecology. What strikes me is that this is what small-scale market and/or permaculture gardeners/farmers will be competing with in the not too distant future. Already, as we know, small-scale ecologically sound farming is at a huge disadvantage, with razor thin profit margins at best and having the extra challenges of being both labour and skill-intensive. What I have been pondering, to use a permaculture-ism, is the possibility of turning a problem into a solution. Should we (those who firmly believe in the benefits of permaculture/beyond-organic farming) be looking at ways of closing the economic gap between regenerative style farming and industrial farming (with the ideal intent of replacing it) through focussed and strategic automation – not to replace the small-scale farmer with automation, but to augment them enough so that an average small-scale (e.g. family scale) ecologically-minded polyculture farmer actually makes an attractive income (for argument sake, say an improved efficiency of a factor of 2). This is the kind of project I would love to get involved in – to empower the right kind of agriculture. I would be interested to hear others thoughts on this.

  • bradyfaught

    I often think of the movie Wall-E, towards the end with the obese people riding around on autonomous scooters with screens in front of them. Technology and innovation for the sake of it isn’t necessarily a good step forward. I highly recommend David Cain’s recent blog post, I think you’ll really enjoy it http://www.raptitude.com/2017/11/the-danger-of-convenience/

  • timwickstrom

    The question I keep coming to when I read about AI, increasing complexity in technology and machinery is where is the energy going to come from to power all of this? All resources are hitting diminishing returns simultaneously and the ability for renewable energy to power industrial society at its current scale is debatable and unproven.

    Progress traps are certainly an issue to be aware of, and as Paul said in the comment above, some have taken proactive steps to keep old, “obsolete” knowledge alive and thriving. I’m an example of that: I blacksmith gardening and permaculture hand tools as a kind of insurance against progress traps. From my perspective, I believe my craft will be a growing industry in the coming decades.

    One last factor that we cannot predict in all of this is the human reaction to AI and robots. A visceral, primal rejection of it from a significant enough portion of people would ensure it never becomes mainstream. The human factor is probably the least predictable in all of this. We shall see!

    • Paul d'Aoust

      Tim, one day when I have the money, I hope to own some of your obsolete beautiful hand tools.

  • jjhopper

    Your articles are always so inspiring Rob. Thanks for taking the time to continue to create this incredible dialogue. Reading this led me to think about the way in which we as a society relegate our elders and knowledge keepers into the margins of society by way of corporate old age homes. These progress traps, the very idea that we are on a path of linear progression, is a dangerous concept. I think of time as a spiral and humble myself to the fact that likely we have been here before in some form or another and I look to the people in my life who have lived the longest on this earth and ask them my big questions. Also an off tangent comment but I love what reading your articles does for my mind. It sends it spiraling…

    • Paul d'Aoust

      Reading this led me to think about the way in which we as a society relegate our elders and knowledge keepers into the margins of society by way of corporate old age homes. […] humble myself to the fact that likely we have been here before in some form or another and I look to the people in my life who have lived the longest on this earth and ask them my big questions.

      Very gracious words for such an important yet neglected part of our society. I think our obsession with progress and novelty as ends unto themselves (rather than as tools to help us improve) is part of the reason we don’t think our elders are important anymore. “Ahhh, they don’t know anything; they’re just sticks-in-the-mud.”

  • Jordan Saunders

    Great article and very timely as I am reading this book currently and actually read through that quote last night and pondered it for some time. I think relegating farming to robots is as dangerous and much the same as trusting it to corporations in that they decide the metrics of success. When success is measured in profits, homogeneity of product and calorie output you get the predicament we are currently in which is damaged soils, toxic and nutrient deficient calories and splintered rural communities. I see this only worsening.

    On a side note, I am hoping the legalization of Cannabis will move towards the micro-brewery model whereas small scale farmers can grow a reasonable sized cash crop that allows them to make a right livelihood and stay farming and preserving those skills, essentially subsidizing food growing. Many farmers are willing to grow food at a loss because they love what they do. Imagine giving them an extra $30k-50k a year where all of a sudden they have a quality of life and are not forced to cut corners to pay their bills.

    A little off topic but I see this as a potential to preserve farming skills and knowledge by spreading some of the upcoming boon of this product around.

  • Paul d'Aoust

    Great perspective, and one that made me really think. When I saw the headline in my RSS reader, I thought, “I bet this is gonna be about losing touch with the day-to-day movements of the farm and suddenly having a catastrophe on your hands because the AI wasn’t smart enough to pick up on problem X.”

    It’s an intriguing idea, the thought that we’ll lose it if we don’t use it, culturally speaking. I guess that’s what the rewilding and primitive skills people are trying to tell us too; that we’ve lost a lot of things that could be quite crucial in unexpected circumstances. It reminds me of the ham radio buffs who keep on putting solar-powered radio repeaters in old fridges on top of mountains, in anticipation of that blizzard-of-the-century that knocks out all roads, electricity, and communications. The rest of us laugh at them wasting time with soldering irons and wire, but when that blizzard finally hits, we’ll be grateful that they hung on to their idiosyncrasies for our sake!

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