Sep 30, 2014
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May 2014 Archive for Growing Technology

RSS By: Ben Potter,

Technology editor Ben Potter brings you the latest in technology news, and how you can apply it to farming.


Will Your Driverless Tractor Kill You?

May 29, 2014

Let’s talk about a classic thought experiment in ethics from the 1960s called "the trolley problem."

Here’s the problem: a runaway trolley is barreling down the tracks, on a course to hit five people who are tied to the track. You can pull a lever to make the trolley switch tracks. However, doing so will put it on a course to kill two other people who are tied up on the second track. What do you do?

It’s an interesting moral dilemma that has been debated for the past 40 years. And now, thanks to Google, the trolley problem is getting a modern makeover. Let’s call it the "Google car problem."

Here’s the revised problem, courtesy of Popular Science magazine:

A front tire blows, and your autonomous SUV swerves. But rather than veering left, into the opposing lane of traffic, the robotic vehicle steers right. Brakes engage, the system tries to correct itself, but there's too much momentum. Like a cornball stunt in a bad action movie, you are over the cliff, in free fall.

Your robot, the one you paid good money for, has chosen to kill you.

It’s not just a question for future car owners. Most futurists predict autonomous tractors will be prevalent on tomorrow’s farming operations. How will OEMs respond to this potential situation? Should they install a manual override that allows the driver to take over the brakes, for instance?

In the coming years, as autonomous tractors move from speculative buzzword to having actual, practical uses on the farm, it will be interesting to see what other safety measures might be installed to avoid ethical quandaries like the trolley problem.

Want a Better Biofuel? Grab a Termite.

May 23, 2014

 Good-for-nothing termite? You may want to reconsider that accusation.

That’s because a team of international researchers has sequenced the genome of the Nevada dampwood termite, unlocking new ways to control the pesky pest – and potentially finding a game-changing new way to produce biofuels efficiently.

Currently, termites create an estimated $40 billion worth of damage and treatment costs annually. The termite genome might help identify new ways to control them, says Michael Scharf, Purdue professor of entomology who participated in the study.


"While current pesticides are very effective products, the problem is that you’re injecting large volumes of them into the soil around the house," he says. "It would be nice to move to a greener technology, and that’s what the genome sequence could enable us to do."

Even more intriguing, the study is helping researchers understand how the more than 4,000 species of bacteria that thrive in their guts work together – something the biofuel industry would be highly interested in learning more about. Specifically, the researchers hope to identify enzymes that could lead to novel ways to produce cellulosic biofuels.

"The genome provides a well-defined roadmap that could help us find the right cocktail of enzymes to break wood down into simple sugars," Scharf says. "It takes a lot of the guesswork out."

But We Were Promised Jetpacks!

May 12, 2014

 Agriculture continues to be a Wall Street darling of sorts. Even Google wants to get involved.

Astro Teller, who heads the company’s secretive laboratory arm known as "Google X," told attendees of the TechCrunch Disrupt conference earlier this week that agriculture and batteries are the two areas that currently hold the most promise.

"A tenfold improvement in energy density … would change the world so radically we can’t even see [all of the implications]," he says of batteries. And he challenged agriculture as a large, inefficient industry that poses some of the greatest opportunities for Google X.

This marks a change for Google X, but change is nothing new for the company. It sheds ideas quickly that aren’t able to take root. Google X has recently ditched forays such as teleportation, space elevators - and most recently, jetpacks.

Yes, jetpacks.

"The problem is that it is going to be so power inefficient," Teller says. "I just couldn’t live with that."

So generations who grew up dreaming about moon colonies and jetpacks will have to put this one particular dream on hold. In the meantime, it will be interesting to see what Google X dreams up for the agriculture industry.

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