Memia on Sunday 24-Apr-2022: Agricultural automation and food sovereignty🚜// state of the environment🍂// Russo-Ukraine strategic calculations 🇺🇦// Tesla of housing?🏘️// valley of liquidity💧
I would feel disappointed and frustrated
Hope you’re enjoying your Sunday morning!
Welcome to this weekend’s Memia on Sunday - and a big welcome to all the new readers who have joined this week, lots of new signups following Wednesday’s piece on the obsolete UI of today’s politics. Struck a chord, perhaps.
(Reminder students get a paid subscription for free if you want one… just drop me an email with your uni/school/other email and I’ll sort it). And tell your mates:
This issue: the usual set of weekend exploring links and then, below the paywall, going a bit deeper on open source agricultural robotics - and raising the issue of future food sovereignty as production becomes ever-more automated.
(Sorry for slightly later than usual publishing today - I had some issues with the Substack editor and lost an earlier draft😣…. plus this morning I had to get up at the crack of dawn as support crew for my daughter’s school team in the 12-hour(!!) Kaikoura Adventure Race - see video below the start for the 7am sea swim section! Awesome event.)
Links to onward reading, listening and watching…
🇺🇦 Russo-Ukraine war…strategic calculations
I’m still working on my synthesis of the 120 geopolitical “Axes of Uncertainty” from a couple of weeks ago into some tangible scenario models. More soon…
Even in the 2 weeks since then, it’s become clear that NATO strategy is to contain the Russo-Ukraine conflict within Ukraine’s borders, fought only with conventional weapons. But within this constraint framework, arms of all kinds are now pouring into Ukraine from all around NATO.
(The darker side of this equation: shareholders of Western arms manufacturers will be looking forward to bumper profits this year. War has always been good for some businesses…)
Against this combined economic and military force, who knows what Russia’s evolving strategy actually is. Faced with the prospect of conventional military defeat or just a long drawn out campaign of attrition, the risks of escalation beyond conventional warfare, or beyond Ukraine’s borders, are more heightened than they have ever been.
A few pieces I read this week provide more insights on the strategic calculations in play:
Reuters “Factbox”: What is the chain of command for a potential Russian nuclear strike?
Political commentator David Rothkopf in the Daily Beast canvases a range of sources to assess the landscape, concluding: even if Russia uses a nuke, the US probably won’t—but Putin would still pay dearly:
“To use a nuclear weapon breaks the ultimate taboo. There is no moral distinction to be made between a ‘tactical nuke’ and a strategic one. It would be a complete game-changer for the world. We should signal publicly and privately starting now that it would mean complete and total isolation. All embassies shut. All visas canceled. All Russian properties confiscated.”
— Former Estonian President Toomas Hendrik-Ilves
US academic Jeffrey Sachs is outspoken about the long term sustainability of US-led sanctions if the war drags on: A negotiated peace is the only way to end Russia's war on Ukraine.
All this as the war appears to have reached deeper into Russian territory in the last few days:
Reports of several major fires at critical strategic Russian chemical infrastructure plants - which could potentially cripple Russian weapons manufacturing supply chains.
🏘️Tesla of housing?
On to more optimistic matters…
Jason Ballard, CEO of construction startup ICON believes that 3D printed houses will fundamentally change the construction industry, solving the supply chain and labour shortages which dog the housebuilding sector worldwide. He wants ICON to become the “Tesla of housing”:
“Not just the best 3D printed homes on the market, but the best homes on the market. What if we could build houses that were twice as good, in half the time and at half the price? …We want 3D printed homes to be the best homes…we can solve the global housing crisis in our lifetime.”
The demand is certainly there.
Three data visualisations which caught my eye this week:
Shipping lanes of the world:
💧Valley of Liquidity:
Fintech engineer Kris Machowski used WebGL to animate usually-2D order books into a 3D time-series delivering new insights on how market maker strategies may be manipulating the market (click below for thread).
This is one indicator of how I expect 3D immersible VR user interfaces will provide new ways of interacting with giant datasets, enhancing productivity and insights…
Out of Africa
How did humans spread around the globe? (Missing the Taiwan→Aotearoa link…!)
🍂State of the environment
Two important Aotearoa government reports out this week which I haven’t had time to read yet in detail but sharing here:
DOC released the implementation plan for 2020’s Aotearoa New Zealand Biodiversity Strategy – Te Mana o te Taiao. Aimed at driving collective action to tackle New Zealand’s biodiversity crisis… but also largely focused on bringing the legislative framework governing DOC into the 21st century so that DOC actually has some legal teeth going forward.
Related article in Stuff interviewing Conservation minister Kiritapu Allan… who remains upbeat about the opportunities despite the background trends…
The Ministry for Environment also released their annual State of the Environment report for 2022… which is a sobering read judging by the summary:
“The majority of our rare ecosystems are threatened. Habitat destruction, along with the introduction of mammalian predators, has severely reduced the populations of many unique birds, reptiles, and plants. Many remain threatened with extinction or are at risk of becoming threatened…
…Looking to the future (Hiwa-i-te-rangi) identifies many challenges that may impact the wellbeing of current and future generations. These include the impacts of climate change, population growth, risks to food and water security, and threats to ecosystems. The challenges ahead are complex and can play out in many ways, and sometimes beyond our direct control.”
Lifetimes of work ahead just to turn the boat around...
A couple of diversionary mind-ticklers this Sunday:
👀In conversation with GPT-3… intelligent … or not?
An 83-page FBI guide to internet slang from 2016… imagine trying to keep this up to date! (h/t spotting by Saya Wahrlich).
🚜Agricultural automation and food sovereignty
OK, this week’s deeper dive is a look across forthcoming challenges with agricultural automation - and alternative approach of strategic investment in open-source technology. Paid subscribers read on…
Exactly a year ago in Memia 2021.15 I outlined my conceptual framework for changes underway in physical production processes: “MMMMeta Manufacturing”: (machines that make machines that make machines that make stuff…). Everything is moving from manually operated machines, to autonomous machines, and ultimately to nanotechnology.
The first pass illustration of the concept shown below for 4 different physical “products”. My take then was that many industries, particularly food production, are on the cusp of a paradigm shift from manually operated machines to completely autonomous production.
In particular, the implications of this paradigm shift for individual and collective food sovereignty are only now becoming apparent. Ultimately if the “means of production” (eg autonomous robots) are controlled by global tech giants then individual consumers or producers lose even more negotiating power in food supply chains.
One current example: John Deere is a massive US agritech firm which not only manufactures around 50% of US farm equipment but also attempts to control the aftermarket as well. This has led to farmers petitioning the FTC for the “right to repair” their John Deere farming machinery:
“Along with the equipment itself, John Deere controls the market for repairing that equipment, and in recent years it has actively prevented farmers and many independent dealers from diagnosing malfunctions or making many repairs.“
(🏴☠️🇺🇦Incidentally, perhaps unsurprising given all of the photos of tractors towing tanks, Ukraine is a world leader for hacked alternative firmware for John Deere equipment.)
Marc Andreessen's famous statement that 'software is eating the world' is ironically now applying to the things we eat as well.
(Note that this is just the logical outcome of standard commercial IP licensing models which have been dominant in the tech sector for decades. Microsoft, Google, Apple… all of these firms exert strongly coercive legal and technical controls across patents and in their Ts&Cs to restrict what users can do with the software they supply.)
The question for the agricultural sector (a huge part of Aotearoa’s society and economy) is whether it intends to become a “technology taker” of VC-funded offshore agritech - or is there still time and enough momentum to invest in alternative models: a maturing, increasingly competitive open-source software and (3D-printed) hardware ecosystem?
Horticultural automation tech stack
I’ll focus in on horticultural use cases - automation of growing fruit and vegetable food crops in the next few decades. (Animal farming for meat and milk is likely to be rapidly outcompeted by synthetic proteins quicker than vegetables is my guess…10-15 years max?)
This logo eyechart below from Better Food Ventures gives a good breakdown of the new tech stack for indoor horticulture: next generation indoor growers will split into either greenhouse growers and completely indoor vertical “sunless” growers. The landscape is likely similar for traditional outdoor horticulture too, but just more variables to manage so the tech will lag.
I haven’t done any in-depth analysis on all those logos, but my guess is that most of them will be private companies, many VC-funded and going to market on a commercial proprietary IP basis like John Deere above. Over the next decade many of these will get consolidated through M&A, and the control over the “means of automated food production” will become far more concentrated.
The implication: if you don’t pay your SaaS licence fee, or if you hack your firmware, your tractor / robot / spraying equipment is just switched off by remote control…
(Plus with all of these point solutions, getting grower data in or out of each system is going to be an increasingly difficult challenge…but that’s a story for another day…)
As I indicate above, I think a viable hedging strategy would be to invest in an ecosystem of open source software and hardware for agricultural production at scale…below is a quick scan across the landscape of what I can find right now:
Farmbot the leading open-source vegetabe growing robot, targeted at the backyard grower hobbyist and open-source enthusiast - you can either 3D print your own kit or buy one starting at US$2589. Their average yield calculation is that only 3-7 square meters of space is needed to grow the daily recommended servings of vegetables for one person. It manages seeding, watering and weed suppression using a single 3-in-1 head.
Other open source robotics
Not specifically related to food production, but there is a thriving ecosystem of open source robotics out there. Start here: Wikipedia page: Open Source Robotics.
Open source robotic software frameworks / operating systems:
Open source 3D printed robots:
Not seeing too many applications in agriculture yet, but open source robotics is gaining traction in manufacturing.
Most interesting for me are the options opened up by 3D printing of open-source hardware - 3D printers are the “machines that make machines that make machines…”. Many of these are still largely academic projects but some (eg BCN3D and others) are starting to be deployed into live production environments.
Manufacturing robot arms
All3DP have an up to date list of 12 options: The Best DIY & 3D Printed Robot Arms of 2022. Some of these are now starting to mature into production use cases. In particular:
Thor is “an open Source and printable robot arm with six degrees of freedom. Its configuration (yaw-roll-roll-yaw-roll-yaw) is the same used by most of the manipulator robots on the market. In its extended position, Thor is about 625mm high and can lift loads up to 750 grams.”
Andreas Thoeldorfer’s 3D Printable Robot Arm on Hackaday:
3D printing services
If you’re interested, there are a number of international 3D printing services where you can order prints online - including Thingiverse, CraftCloud3D. There are also some local services who can help provide consulting as well, from the smaller end of town including 3DPrintChch, Clone3D, 3D Printer Store and Marvle3D. Also at the industrial end of town, Auckland-based Zenith Tecnica are world leaders at Titanium additive manufacturing.
Unfortunately I lost the first draft of this conclusion due to a rare Substack editor malfunction… (It was great, believe me…!😁) But in brief:
Aotearoa’s agriculture sector needs to start thinking consciously about its long term posture to automated growing tech coming down the pipe. Is the intention to continue buying on proprietary commercial IP basis… in which case the sector’s leverage in the value chain will decrease to just being a “technology taker” - or is there enough vision and collective willpower to start making strategic investments at scale in open-source technology as a hedge for future food sovereignty?
Please add comments in below if you’ve got thoughts on the debate or also any projects / developers I’ve missed!
Catch you again on Wednesday.