Douglas Mallette was one of my favorite speakers at the Extreme Futurist Festival this year. Mallette is an ex-NASA engineer who has a vision for cybernetic farms of the future. He has an Indiegogo project called Cybernated Farm Systems. The basic idea is to design an aquaponic food production facility that can be powered by wind and solar. Aquaponic systems take advantage of the synergy between fish and plants. Fish in tanks soil water with their waste which is fed to plants who extract the waste as nutrients and then the cleaned water is returned to the fish to renew the cycle.
Mallette has a grand vision of engineers rising up to overturn economies of scarcity by providing technology based abundance for the world. In Mallette’s view, the fact that we have starvation on earth right now is “retarded.” I was inspired by the intensity of his presentation. He strongly believes that humans should be freed from the drudgery of labor and that human labor is largely inefficient anyway. Earth needs to upgrade it’s global operating system to move away from ownership to usership and from a growth model to a more sustainable, earth based economic model. Czech economist Tomas Sedlacek made the rounds last year trying to promote a similar idea of non-growth capitalism. Also, Doctorow was pushing for a reevaluation of user vs owner rights this past year.
So Mallette is trying to start a company with an equally grand vision. He aims to produce autonomous farm buildings that could be dropped anywhere on earth and start producing food with very little human oversight. He mentioned cheap new foldable photovoltaic technology that he is interested in. Another cool energy technology that Mallette wants to utilize in his cyber farms is a magnetic levitation assisted vertical axis wind turbine. Now that is good stuff. Here is a fun demonstration video using neodymium magnets. I also have a scribbled reference in my notes to Bloom Energy fuel cells, but it’s not clear where they would fit in the design.
So yeah, this is a great idea. Build a cyber farm, drop it anywhere off the grid in the undeveloped world and it starts producing food for the people with very little maintenance. Mallette even suggested that his company would provide a lifetime maintenance guarantee, which provides an incentive for the company to focus on quality. I admire that vision. My concern is that his vision might be too grand to be realizable. Take the Indiegogo funding goal for example. It’s $1 million dollars. (Correction 1/3/2013: looks like the goal was reduced to $485k.) That’s a big goal for a crowdfunded project where the average goal is closer to $85k. Also, one wonders how this really gets paid for. Several speakers were talking about abundance at XFF this year, and I love that vision. But it’s hard to see how we cross that gap from the current scarcity systems to this kinder, gentler world.
Here in Oakland, an organization called Kijani Grows produces a much more modest arduino controlled aquaponic system. It’s not a super cyber farm, but for $600 they provide a (presumably) working module. I like that idea even better. Start small and iterate like they do in Agile development. But Mallette is a cool guy, and I respect his principals. We could do well to have more engineers who dream in this world.