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Robotics Technology

MIT and the Constant Robotic Gardeners 101

Posted by timothy
from the integrated-growlamps dept.
Singularity Hub writes "MIT's Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL) is pioneering the field of automated farming. During a semester-long experiment, CSAIL's researchers created a laboratory farm: tomato plants in terra cotta pots with artificial turf for grass. The goal of the experiment: to see if these tomatoes could be grown, tended, and harvested by robot caretakers."
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MIT and the Constant Robotic Gardeners

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  • Caption (Score:5, Insightful)

    by pete-classic (75983) <hutnick@gmail.com> on Wednesday April 15, 2009 @05:56PM (#27591715) Homepage Journal

    The caption under the image reads, "CSAIL's precision agriculture robots give us a peek into the future where organic life may be tended by artificial life."

    I wonder if they meant the plants . . . or us.

    -Peter

  • Growing "tomatoes" (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Mal-2 (675116) on Wednesday April 15, 2009 @06:04PM (#27591791) Homepage Journal

    You know, most people who go to the garden supply store and claim to be growing "tomatoes" are actually growing a completely different kind of consumable. Could this lead to fully automated pot farms?

    Mal-2

    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by Mprx (82435)
      Tomatoes are easy to grow, and by choosing a variety optimized for flavor rather than yield or disease resistance (not a major concern in low density farming) you can grow tomatoes better than anything you can buy. Once you've tasted a home grown tomato fresh from the vine you'll understand why tomato growing is popular.
    • You know, most people who go to the garden supply store and claim to be growing "tomatoes" are actually growing a completely different kind of consumable. Could this lead to fully automated pot farms?

      That could result in a lot of robots going to jail.

    • by zonky (1153039)
      What you need is the Switched-on-gardener. [sog.co.nz] No, it's not a joke site. They exist. They have great radio adverts.
    • by The Iso (1088207)

      Keep prices down. Plant your seeds.

    • I, for one, do not welcome our automated tomato-growing overlords.
      The next step is growing humans, and harvesting them for power!
      Someone has to stop this!

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by fractoid (1076465)
      This reminds me of a hydroponics store I used to drive past on the way to work. Their storefront all but announced "Everything you need to grow... tomatoes... in your roof space!"
    • by DrMrLordX (559371)
      Damn, and here I was thinking you were going to make an off-hand reference to Big O [imdb.com].
  • Great idea (Score:5, Insightful)

    by jason4567 (1531635) on Wednesday April 15, 2009 @06:07PM (#27591823)
    Having robots raising our food is probably a great idea, since it presents less oppurtunity for contamination. Contaminations is a big problem now, there is always some food recall because of bacteria in food or something similar. Not all of these are directly caused by humans, but I would say that a good part of them are. Having robots to do part of the work presents less oppurtunity for contamination.
    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by BSAtHome (455370)

      Yes, but when robots do all the work, then the human population needs less food. Why then grow all those tomatoes? The more robots do, the less they need to do if for the humans. Maybe we are working on an evolutionary path making us obsolete. Let the robot philosopher break his cpu on that.

      • by d12v10 (1046686)

        This frees up farm laborers to attend to other intellectual pursuits, or other tasks which robots are as-yet unable to do. You incorrectly assume that those humans will suddenly stop consuming food if they are not employed in the fields.

      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by vertinox (846076)

        Yes, but when robots do all the work, then the human population needs less food.

        Huh? Are you saying that if people don't work then they will eat less?

        If that were true, then when you retire you don't need that pension.

        And I don't think the robots most efficient method of gathering energy for themselves would be to grow tomatoes.

        Every time, (and I mean EVERY time) someone throughout history says that when technology that makes it easier to do something with less manpower, that humans will be obsolete and sta

    • Instead of people shitting out in the fields you'll have robots draining oil out in the fields.

      Pick your poison.

      • Fertiliser is often just shit anyway.. though if the plants are already growing above ground then it would be nasty to get them smeared. Yummy..

    • by dkleinsc (563838)

      The top source of contamination in the food supply of the US at least is animals raised for meat (most notably pigs and cattle). Thanks to feed lots, you have lots of animals in one place, so very quickly you have lots of animal dung in one place. In the same place as the animals. (To be clear, my issue with feed lots is that they're inefficient and a health risk, not sympathy for animals.)

      Next on the list is probably contamination within the kitchen (possibly your own, possibly the commercial kitchen). Unt

      • by maxume (22995)

        What is more efficient than feed lots? I only even see range fed beef being more expensive.

        • by fractoid (1076465)
          Maybe that the feed that's used could be fed to humans instead? And that it has to be gathered and processed instead of just letting the cows wander around and eat grass (which we *can't* eat)? It depends on what factor you're trying to optimise; feed lots are far more efficient uses of land, whereas farms are more efficient uses of energy.
        • by dkleinsc (563838)

          1. Much more efficient than feed lots is eating plants.

          2. The price advantage of feed lots over range-fed disappear as soon as regulations about dealing with manure and runoff are properly enforced.

          3. Price and efficiency don't always go together (see point 2).

          4. Traditionally, pigs were raised on table scraps, chickens on insects they picked out of the orchards, and ruminants (cows, sheep, goats) on grass that grew in areas that weren't suitable for raising crops. In other words, animals ate what people di

  • by PolygamousRanchKid (1290638) on Wednesday April 15, 2009 @06:24PM (#27591995)

    This might work in the lab, but when robots are working alongside seasonal farm laborers, those poor robots are going to break down real fast, get run over by heavy farm machinery, and just plain disappear under mysterious circumstances.

    • This might work in the lab, but when robots are working alongside seasonal farm laborers, those poor robots are going to break down real fast, get run over by heavy farm machinery, and just plain disappear under mysterious circumstances.

      The robots are definitely going to need to form a union to take care of their welfare.

    • by vertinox (846076)

      but when robots are working alongside seasonal farm laborers

      Don't worry.

      You remember those articles about robots being able to eat meat to power themselves?

      What do you think the seasonal migrant labor is for?

  • by MichaelSmith (789609) on Wednesday April 15, 2009 @06:24PM (#27591997) Homepage Journal
    is on a space ship orbiting Saturn.
  • by Anonymous Coward

    is by placing giant scissor blades on the robots, and using a liberal recognition algorithm for when tomatoes are big enough to be cut from the stem

    please

  • Whereas in India... (Score:2, Interesting)

    by Warlord88 (1065794)
    Might be slightly off-topic, but cannot help pointing out. With general elections in India round the corner, Mulayam Singh Yadav, the leader of a prominent political party calls for elimination of Computers and English. http://elections.ndtv.com/news_story.aspx?ID=NEWEN20090090458& [ndtv.com]: "The use of computers in offices is creating unemployment problems. Our party feels that if work can be done by a person using hands there is no need to deploy machines." And we are supposed to compete economically along wit
    • I can't imagine that going down very well in Mumbai.
    • Are you from India? India has communist roots, correct? My impression as a US citizen is that the communist/socialist roots of India will always act as an economic drag as they do in Europe. The biggest difference being that India does not have a developed economy to begin with, so you may not get off the ground economically speaking, at all.

      This is my opinion, as an outsider (who has an interest because I work in IT). Would that fit your assessment of the situation in India too?
      • Yes, I am from India and I'm glad to see your opinion. India does not have communist roots though. The reason why India is still referred to as 'third-world' country is because post-WWII, we did not align with either the capitalist bloc or the communist bloc. For textbook purposes, we adopted a 'mixed economy' in which major sectors (transportation, defense, heavy industries, etc.) were to be public. However, the economy showed all the characteristics of a stagnant, closed system with very slow growth rate.
    • by Quothz (683368) on Wednesday April 15, 2009 @07:35PM (#27592611) Journal

      Might be slightly off-topic, but cannot help pointing out.... "The use of computers in offices is creating unemployment problems."

      Not really off-topic at all. It's a valid concern that large-scale automation of labor can displace part of the workforce. For example, automation in the office contributed to massive layoffs in the 1980s.

      Historically, the economy has adjusted well to automation. In some cases, the expansion of other industries and creation of new ones has taken care of the problem. In many parts of the world, people have gained increased leisure to squeeze the workforce into fewer slots.

      The philosopher and novelist Robert Wilson considered giving people a direct economic interest in automation. Others propose purely communistic solutions. A few, like Yadav there, want to just halt the clock and hope for the best.

      My opinions aren't fully formed, although I unquestionably favor automation of labor wherever possible. Given the historical context of automation, I don't think we need to panic just yet, but our societies should be considering the ramifications.

      • A few, like Yadav there, want to just halt the clock and hope for the best.

        Precisely. And these highlights from his manifesto appeared (and were ridiculed) on the front page of the leading English daily. The educated masses will laugh at the manifesto and never vote for him. But that does not deter Yadav from practicing vote-bank politics over the massive number of poor, uneducated people who think he would be actually doing them some good.

        I too realize the concerns surrounding unemployment increase due to automation. This is one of the reasons agriculture is still the predomina

    • Hmmm. From what I knew of your politics, the SP was a minor party. But looking at wiki it seems to indicate that it has grown. All I can say, is that just because somebody preaches something, does not mean that they will do it. Here in America, the republicans spoke of balanced budget, strong economy, smaller Gov, competent ppl, and none interference with other nations. Look at how that worked out under reagan and W.
  • Interesting Trend (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Dripdry (1062282) on Wednesday April 15, 2009 @06:54PM (#27592257) Journal

    Not to be alarmist, especially since this technology is very far down the road from being widely used, but what happens if this begins to replace manual labor jobs as has been predicted for decades? I'm sure Asimov has a leg up on me but here goes:

    Without education infrastructure in place to train current generations, low cost robots will compete with unskilled laborers for work. While this could be 30-50 years down the road, what happens when the poor huddled masses can no longer do manual jobs? Will their quality of living be raised up since it will be cheap to produce things, or will those who own the means of production horde it for themselves and leave everyone who can't afford their price to starve?

    Also, this would certainly make energy needs (and potentially metals/commodities) even more accute. If the robots can't function, then no one (or many fewer people) can eat.

    I'm all for automation, but if we don't back up our technology with the understanding that we need to provide other opportunities to people, then we may be doing humanity a disservice. From a very cold point of view, though, perhaps we would just be thinning out the population, which already seems to be far larger than necessary (i don't really advocate this point of view, but I know there are those out there who do).

    I'm sure this has all come up before (ie not terribly insightful), just throwing it out there for discussion.

    • Re: (Score:2, Redundant)

      by MichaelSmith (789609)
      This has been happening for centuries. What happened to all the messenger boys in our offices? Where did all the typists go? Over 50 years we will adapt.
      • by pikine (771084) on Wednesday April 15, 2009 @08:10PM (#27592869) Journal

        These messenger boys (don't know about typists) were probably there because they come from a poor family and didn't have the means of proper education. However, they could learn much on the job by interacting with and observing the professionals. Some of the brightest who are willing to learn on their own could actually gain a successful career one day because of the experience they gathered doing these low-skill service positions. I'm sure you can find many autobiographies of successful people who began their lives similarly.

        Nowadays they are replaced by automation. That means the poor and uneducated lose a valuable opportunity to become successful. Their only chance now is to go through a proper education, and our education system still favors in many ways families living comfortable lives.

        • Re: (Score:1, Insightful)

          by Anonymous Coward

          And that's precisely why education should be free of charge. There will still be poor people, but most of them will be poor because they were too lazy (or not foresighted enough) to take part in any education that the tax payers offered them. Nevertheless, their children will later get a new shot at college just like they did.

          Or that's how we do it in Europe, at least. That includs the "poor countries" in Eastern Europe. (Although, the quality of education varies quite a lot with country and school.)

        • Oh, I don't know. I think that endeavors are becoming increasingly sophisticated, creating more room at the bottom tier of the production hierarchy for currently non-automatable jobs. Also, anything that saves humans' time and energy will create a more diverse (and maybe I'll even throw in "larger" because I'm an optimist, plus it seems to be the trend) marketplace because more humans have more time and energy to express traits that are exclusively human.

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by timeOday (582209)
      This isn't sci-fi, it has already happened. And the answer is, technology (especially robots, not just software) are capital, so in a capitalist system they concentrate wealth. A couple generations ago, an unskilled worker could get a job putting cars together and support an entire family, now those days are gone.
    • by AngrySup (1003688)
      Since Asimov was quoted in the first paragraph, I might put fourth the example of Solaria. /Naked Earth. OK, so it is a dead end, but it's a slow death.
    • by amilo100 (1345883)
      but what happens if this begins to replace manual labor jobs as has been predicted for decades?

      That is the general idea. The poor and the stupid will become obsolete. In the first 30 years they will probably breed like rabbits (thanks to higher food production). Thereafter the lumen proletariat will all probably be killed. This is a good thing for human advancement.

      Without education infrastructure in place to train current generations, low cost robots will compete with unskilled labourers for work.
    • That question is actually what inspired communism. Karl Marx in his book Das Kapital explored the economics of a world where everything is created via automation. Basically he states modern capitalism can't work - you'd get all the wealth accumulating in the hands of those that own the automation plants. There'd be a massive class difference and those at the bottom won't be able to get the things they want despite the fact there is nearly no cost in producing them.

      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Das_Kapital [wikipedia.org]
    • by vertinox (846076)

      Without education infrastructure in place to train current generations, low cost robots will compete with unskilled laborers for work. While this could be 30-50 years down the road, what happens when the poor huddled masses can no longer do manual jobs? Will their quality of living be raised up since it will be cheap to produce things, or will those who own the means of production horde it for themselves and leave everyone who can't afford their price to starve?

      That's a really good question and one that I'v

  • Could this be Soil-ent Green Tomatoes?
  • For those of you old enough to remember Huey and Duey the robots in the movie Silent Running: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0067756/

    -- IV

  • by Ungrounded Lightning (62228) on Wednesday April 15, 2009 @09:56PM (#27593529) Journal

    Kudos for MIT for working on this problem.

    But "pioneering" it? Give me a break. Agricultural robotics ("agrobots") has been a going field for decades. The devices are very capable and some are quite inexpensive - to the point that there is at least one organic farm I know about that doesn't use or need the price breaks from exploiting foreign and/or illegal workers to run at a solid profit, despite pressure from the local authorities to hire illegals.

    Look at The Mitchell Farm [slashdot.org] just for starters. (NOT the one I characterized above, by the way.) There are others using various levels of automation in Oregon, California, etc. And those are just places I KNOW about.

    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by l00sr (266426)

      Mod parent up. Also, John Deere has had robo-tractors [deere.com] for a while now. Also, s/aching/shiny metal/.

    • by Thelasko (1196535)

      The devices are very capable and some are quite inexpensive

      Speaking of capable and inexpensive, did anybody notice the way those robots were watering the tomatoes? Does anybody else think that was an overcomplicated way of doing that? Why do the robots have to drive over to each plant to water it? Can't they just have some hoses going to each plant, with a valve that opens when the sensor says the soil is dry? Heck, you can build an EarthTrainer [tomatofest.com] out of stuff laying around the house that will water your tomatoes automatically without any electronics.

  • by F34nor (321515)

    My robot gardener has been working for thousands of years!

    http://pireze.org/blog/wp-content/uploads/2009/01/pirezejapan-08-trip-part-q-0009.jpg [pireze.org]

    • by F34nor (321515)

      Of course you have to watch out for pesky kids distracting him and birds nesting on him...

      www.jasms.de/anime/laputa/laputa01.jpg

  • All of the parts appear to be readily available off-the-shelf parts.

    The base is an iRobot Create. [irobot.com]
    The arm appears to be a modified Lynxmotion AL5C. [lynxmotion.com]
    Plus a generic laptop, webcam, etc.
  • This would be really cool if the robots were able to handle the kind of tomatoes that used to be grown before the demands of machinery required breeding thick-skinned varieties.

  • But won't this cause tax revenue from illegal immigrants to plummet & home equity to fall because of the lack of illegal immigrants to buy houses? It's going to be banned.

    • Are you kidding? Illegal immigrants are a burden more then an asset. Any tax revenue they make is dwarfed by medical care, schooling, law enforcement, and other costs, as opposed to a legalized worker or citizen doing the same job.

  • The latest IEEE Spectrum "Winners and Losers" edition listed a robotic strawberry picker as a loser [ieee.org]. The gist was that it doesn't work in fields, only special greenhouses, and that the mechanics of actually picking a strawberry without damaging it is fairly complicated. This tomatobot doesn't seem to address either of these issues, either.

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