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.
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The idea of unlimited abundance is totally absurd. It’s only an engineer’s wet dream because the vast majority of engineers do not understand the first thing about biology, and they envision a future where all of their robots and cybernetic systems have solved humanity’s problems. The prevalent ethos of engineers is that any and all problems can be engineered away. They think life, and the sustenance thereof, can be sussed out sitting at one’s workstation with a powerful-enough computer and some great software. I know this because I work at a company that is equal parts biologists and engineers. Engineers have a one-lobed brain – the left lobe has cannibalized her neighbor (and yes, the brain is female…like a boat). Biologists, however, who tend to be more “hippy-ish”, right-brained (hence the preponderance of left-handedness amongst molecular biologists), artistic, and open-minded, are what I call Rational Empiricists. Biology simply cannot be fully explained with equations and numbers (at least not yet), and unlike certain disciplines within quantitative fields such as physics, engineering, and of course mathematics, advancing knowledge within fields of biology requires experimentation, control groups, hypotheses, refinement of hypotheses, and reiteration of the whole process. In other words, biologists believe what they experience first hand and don’t put too much stock in calculated predictions. A biologist is more likely to sit quietly and listen, digest, and ponder, while an engineer is more likely to jump out of his seat, sure that he’s got the answer to all life’s predicaments, to start engineering away the problems after hearing 10% of the story and understanding 10% of that 10%. Douglas Mallette’s ideas perfectly exemplify engineer’s naïveté. His solution for world hunger, an autonomous food production box, is so ridiculous, I don’t even know where to start.
The idea of infinite abundance, which places ultimate trust in technology, is not only misguided, it is dangerous. This Pollyanna bullshit reinforces all the behaviors that have gotten us into all our current predicaments (environmental degradation and financial collapse to name just a few), encouraging us to happily keep eating, crapping, screwing, over-populating, and burning things. It is definitely a step in the right direction to develop (or harvest) clean, abundant energy sources, but even if we had an unlimited source of waste-free energy, the pipe dream of infinite abundance would still elude us. The world of stuff will still require the use of limited things. Electronics will still require rare earth metals. A wool sport coat will still require wool that came from sheep that need feed that requires plants that need fertilizer. Many others of us in this age of technological abundance, and abundance in general, think life is a Happy Meal and a Facebook News Feed. We are being sucked into our screens to such an extent that we don’t even realize any more what comprises the real world. Facebook friends are made of electrons. Real friends are made of meat. And interstellar travel on the Starship Enterprise still requires dilithium crystals.
Engineers, and others, who believe infinite abundance is achievable, remind me of my 9 year old who believes in Santa Claus. There’s a jolly fat man with a big ole black sack, no doubt invented by some brilliant engineer, out of which food, shelter, energy, and medicine can be magically produced. They simply do not want to admit that there is no such thing as a free lunch. And they are mortified by the plain fact that the enemy of abundance for the human species is the human species, and there’s nothing an engineer can do about that. The only, and I mean THE ONLY, way to ensure abundance for all is to drastically reduce population growth. In fact, to this end, the population needs to shrink considerably; but of course, I’m not naïve enough to think this will happen (barring major natural disasters or pandemics). And it goes without saying that capitalism as we know will have to come to an abrupt and violent end; and I doubt this will happen, either.
Let’s face it folks, our distant future (actually, maybe not that distant) will be more Road Warrior and less Star Trek. Capitalism, which has expanded its influence on global society despite certain impending resource limitations, allows us humans to fully and truly realize ourselves; but unfortunately, the fully realized human is a ravenous baby-making machine.
I certainly agree with many of your points. The world is finite. Friends are made of meat, etc. I also find a Road Warrior scenario more likely than a Star Trek scenario (some days.) We have certainly built many things to make a buck without regard for the negative health consequences of humans and the ecosystem in general. But I also sort of feel that we have no choice but to engineer our way out of it at this point. I mean Pol Pot’s back-to-nature approach didn’t work out so well. It may be that the Marx was right about this artificial demand idea. Maybe we could stop creating artificial demand somehow… It’s just that capitalism as we know it thrives on that stuff and the systems based on Marxist thought have all sucked really badly over and over and over. So I am ready to leave those 19th century Marxist ideas in the dustbin of history. What’s a modern alternative to just making smaller footprint gadgets and dematerializing products? Some of the atomic level stuff at Foresight blew my mind yesterday. Maybe there is plenty of room at the bottom.
I also must stand up for the engineers here. I consider my own work to be a modest version of engineering. In my mind the scientist’s job is to show that something works in the lab and the engineer is tasked with cleaning up the mess that occurs when theory collides with reality. Engineers make things work in production and at scale in the real world. You are right that the earth would benefit from a more holistic approach to this process. But I would insist that engineers are certainly empiricists. Some of them might even be rational. An engineering counter argument might be that scientists tend toward analysis paralysis. You can listen to the point of never taking action. Maybe that’s better, but maybe not.
Anyway, I have more to say, but I am off to foresight day 2 today.
Learn to build your own aquaponics system watch this video:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2USCx0jRDCg