The Hidden Risks of Autonomous Farming, Part 1
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.
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
Ronald 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:
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?