Tuesday, March 29, 2016

How technology controls us and liberates us: The Internet of Things

When my daughter was first born I downloaded an app to my phone that allowed me to track her wellness: feedings, diapers, sleep habits, doctors appointments, and milestones all in one convenient location.  It even gave me regular feedback (in satisfying chart form) on how she was developing on a weekly or monthly basis.  As a first-time mom and an engineer, I found the plethora of stats comforting.  I had data evidence to show that I wasn't royally screwing up in the rearing of my child, and could confidently answer the medical assistant's questions about the frequency of my daughter's bowel movements*.  Though at times tedious, the regular data entry also gave me peace of mind and allowed me to free up the brain space needed to remember her coos and smiles rather than when she last ate.  Though I abandoned the meticulous record keeping after my daughter weaned herself at eight months, I believe it was an invaluable asset in the first several months of  her life.  Taking a step back and thinking about the impact that one small data-collecting app had on the first few months of my daughter's life, it can only follow how much of a game-changer similar technologies can have on our lives when utilized on a much larger scale.

We often start conversations and give names to concepts before having a concrete idea of their impact, which inadvertently leads us to overstating their magnitude; but the so-called Internet of Things (IoT) has potential to create tidal waves in myriad industries.  Led by the rise of the internet/cloud-based services, semiconductor manufacturing advances, and big data strategies, the IoT is being touted as the basis for the next stage in the industrial revolution.  Surprisingly, one of the largest industries currently bought into the IoT movement is agriculture.

The adaptation of the IoT into the agricultural industry is varied and increasingly complex.  Some of the many implementation points include: real-time monitoring of weather, irrigation, and soil quality, and their inevitable impact on crop yield.  Semios, a company that utilizes wireless sensor networks, detects problematic pest populations and deploys pheromone-based deterrent automatically at the point of need.  Between monitoring cattle health, minimizing water usage and waste, and tracking equipment deployed amongst the crops, IoT is already impacting a wide range of agricultural production.

It is inevitable, as a modern internet-savvy mom, that I run into the occasional parenting blog rant about the dangers of feeding children GMO produce treated with commercial pesticides.  I have to admit that I do not feel strongly in either direction, but I find that (as in most things) everything in moderation is a fine way to lead life.  However, a recent conversation with a good childhood friend (who is now a research entomologist working on the impact of pesticides) about the deteriorating honeybee population got me thinking about how the IoT can further impact the industry.  Similar to the technology already deployed by companies like Semios, it is imaginable that the industry could shift to a continual spot checking of pests/crop disease as a means to ensure product health.  Drone monitoring of remotely embedded sensors (or even a LPWAN deployed across hundreds of acres) could identify and treat/isolate localized issues, removing the need for blanket pesticide treatments.  Rather than assuming a plural contamination, the crop could rely on the "herd immunity" provided through tackling the source of the problem.

Some obvious challenges are associated with this level of data collection and analysis: first and foremost, the size of the gathered data.  For each crop and local pest populations, weather patterns and water availability, a new model has to be assessed, vetted, and deployed.  --The added complication being an overall lower tolerance for experimental methods because of the potential negative impact to a valuable resource.   However, something amazing can also yield from this brave new world: the ability to identify a more ideal symbiotic relationship between crops and the environment.  We already acknowledge the need to maintain a minimum population of pests for the benefit of their natural predators (e.g. bees and birds), but imagine using IoT to find the "sweet spot."  Because of this new shift to data-driven production, standards and threshold tolerances will need to be reconsidered.  Hyperawareness of environmental impact on crop yield makes old standards and practice obsolete.  Even the concept of "economic threshold," which may rely on partial information or subjective standards, will need revamping.  In essence, fully assimilating IoT into agriculture, or any industry for that matter, will require building a new intuition.  Something that I have found makes engineers nervous is when you suddenly violate their intuitive sense of how the world works.  Paradigm shifts are scary, but they are also inevitable in this rapidly changing world.  IoT brings to the table the incredible power of data and hyper-connectivity, and we need to work hard to not only develop the technology, but the mindset around the use of the technology as well.

* Side note: asking why your child's bowel movements smell like trash is not, apparently, a legitimate question and will get you laughed at.

1 comment:

  1. So often "technology" in agriculture is referring to genetically modified technologies that are intended to suppress pests as soon as they start feeding on the plant, and though there is evidence coming to light that GMOs containing the Bt toxin (a toxin that is highly specific to a single insect pest) may result in horizontal transfer of genetic material with our own gut flora, by and large GMOs are safe for human consumption, and in some cases have the potential to ease malnourishment globally (think golden rice). What concerns me about their existence, however, is the fact that widespread and prophylactic treatment of pest populations that may or may not be present in a given field, and which has been driven by the big ag lobby influencing Washington (think the Farm Bill, and ethanol subsidies aren't entirely blameless either), has led to expanses of monoculture throughout the Great Plains. This has a devastating environmental impact. Crop subsidies incentivize wall-to-wall plantings where any flowering field margins are removed to maximize harvest yields. High yields drive up land prices, such that mom and pop farms are disappearing rapidly (this is a nation-wide trend), and young farmers cannot afford land of their own to farm. So land ownership is reserved for precious few people, and the rest of farmers rent the land they work. Because landlords collect rent based on yield, renters have even less incentive to act as stewards to the land the farm. Inputs to maximize yield are higher than ever, and often contrary to profit - farming for profit will likely get you lower yield, but you'll make more money! But the landlords and ag companies want the focus to be on yield.

    When it comes to pest suppression technology, the ag industry has made it so easy for farmers. Everything you need to control damaging fungus, nematoes, insects...it's all already in the bag. In some cases, already inside the seed. Seed treatments are applied to the outside of the seed, and when it germinates, they take up the chemical systemically and distribute it throughout the plant. Unfortunately, not every farmer has rot causing fungus in their fields. Nor do they have early season pest pressure that would justify costly applications of, say, a neonicotinoid seed treatment. But they don't have a choice. The way these chemicals are sold to seed distributors (who the farmers get their seed from), it is economical for the distributor to treat all of their seed and only offer one product to their customers within a region. So you're paying for this "technology" whether you want it or not, and whether you need it or not. In much of the corn belt, you're either organic, or hard core treater, and the majority of farmers would prefer to be in the middle.

    To know that technology of the mechanical engineering kind could help to localize applications of pesticides, and that drones could be used to identify outbreaks before they become economically damaging...I applaud that kind of integrated pest management thinking. It's what our agricultural ecosystems so desperately need. Make it happen Erica!