Ocado just got picked up by the supermarket chain Kroger in a bid to enhance the grocer's online business so it's been in the news. In particular the operation of its warehouse has been getting some attention.
People in agriculture shouldn't think they are the only ones straining how to integrate automation into their operations. Egroceries is a pretty tricky deal, even Amazon is wrestling with it and the idea of "store picking" (where an employee goes out into the physical store to fulfill the orders) is waaay too expensive for a low margin business like food retail and is not it. Hence the build out you see here.
If you are interested in automating agriculture, you should watch this and think about it. What strikes me about the whole set up is how it plays to the strengths of the machines rather than those of people.
Have a look.
Very important news for organic berry growers, actually all organic crop growers.
As most of you know, nitrogen is pretty limiting in berry production, and those of you who follow this blog are also aware of the discussions of including conventional sources of fertilizer into organic production because of the issues of low nutrient concentration in organically approved fertilizers.
Perhaps we don't need to worry so much about this anymore. Looks like to some extent this problem has been solved by the discovery and development by Dr. Brian Ward out of Clemson University of a bacteria produced organic source of ammonium. The article says Dr. Ward is hoping to scale up to commercial by 2021.
It's a good article by the way, this wasn't something that was achieved easily but Dr. Ward's persistence in figuring it out eventually opened the door.
As we continue on our thought study on what might be a successful approach to machine harvest of berries:
Great little note from The Economist on the limits of AI in the physical world. The brief article describes a test in Singapore using robots (actually robotic arms of the sort one sees in car factories) to put together a flat pack chair from IKEA. It took a while, and could only be accomplished with precise instructions like "pick up dowel" and "insert dowel into top-left hole". It just underlines that the physical dexterity we take for granted and execute from moment to moment unconsciously is computationally light years away from a machine that can play checkers or Go.
I am finding that this is far from being an untrammeled area of thought and study, and back in the 1980's Hans Moravec, Robert Brooks and Marvin Minsky came up with what ultimately came to be known as Moravec's paradox. It is the statement that higher level reasoning and pattern recognition of the sort that we currently are able to assign to robots doesn't take nearly the computational power than do lower level sensorimotor skills like moving around a cluttered space and picking up stuff.
Let's hear from Moravec himself what he means:
"Encoded in the large, highly evolved sensory and motor portions of the human brain is a billion years of experience about the nature of the world and how to survive in it. The deliberate process we call reasoning is, I believe, the thinnest veneer of human thought, effective only because it is supported by this much older and much more powerful, though usually unconscious, sensorimotor knowledge. We are all prodigious olympians in perceptual and motor areas, so good that we make the difficult look easy. Abstract thought, though, is a new trick, perhaps less than 100 thousand years old. We have not yet mastered it. It is not all that intrinsically difficult; it just seems so when we do it."
A bit of a sidebar, but the idea that the human reason we hold so dear as setting us apart from the rest of the Animal Kingdom is a "new trick" that we have "not yet mastered" is fascinating.
Fast conclusion here is that it's going to probably going to be a while before anyone builds a machine capable to being able to manipulate something like a soft fruit. Best to emphasize the strength of the machine, and not work to endow it with abilities which are so very difficult for it, but so very easy for us.
To concentrate people's minds on what Fusarium tolerance in strawberry can and can't do, consider the first photo below which is part of a crop termination trial I set up with a grower collaborator last fall and now coming into production this year. The areas receiving no fumigation treatment remain heavily infested with Fusarium, and lo and behold, the ostensibly resistant strawberry variety, 'San Andreas', is already going down.
This only underlines a theme I have been pressing for the past year that, while plant breeding absolutely has its place in soil disease management, it is certainly not the whole picture and is not infallible. Abandoning fumigation and fumigation alternative research and placing the whole burden of disease management on genetic improvement alone, while tempting, is not a good idea.
Below is a picture of what hail can do to strawberry. A friend forwarded me these pictures of what a freak hailstorm a few days ago over his field left behind. Shredded leaves, pitted and bruised fruit right down to pretty undeveloped green ones, even on the flower. This storm represents a huge setback for his farm.
I'd have a hard time getting up and facing the day after a loss like this, but nevertheless you growers do it as a matter of course.
Bless you for the work you do and the food you grow for us in spite of the curveballs Mother Nature can throw at you.