Scene from "Silent Running", (c) UP 1972

I gave a talk today to a group of 1st to 3rd graders at the IBM Camp Innovation for a Smarter Planet. My goal was to show the kids that a) engineering is a career in which an individual can address our nations grand challenges (e.g. “Managing the Nitrogen Cycle“), and b) that one’s visions can be articulated using very simple means, that is off-the-shelf hardware for less than thousand Dollars and still have impact.

As the topics the kids brainstorm during the summer camp are energy, water, and transportation (among others), I demonstrated our work on the Distributed Robot Garden. Part of the inspiration for this idea comes from the 1972 movie “Silent Running” that I watched as a child.  I then showed them how we started by putting together a very simple robot with a couple of MIT undergraduate students, used this platform to attract students to a robotics class taught together with Daniela Rus, and how the robot eventually emerged into its current form.

The first gardening robot, v1.0: iRobot Create, water bottle, Lynxmotion arm and hose

We began the discussion by briefly talking about the history of agriculture. Here it is important to know, and pretty accessible  to young students, that hunting and gathering (which dominated the 2.5Million long paleolithic period) does not leave a lot of room for productivity, such as building houses, settlements, reading and writing (or building robots!). This process of innovation was essentially kicked off with the dawn of agriculture some 10,500 years ago. Only then people had enough spare time to advance civilization. This was particularly drastic in the last century: Whereas one farmer catered to 15.5 people in 1950, this number has jumped to 140 to 1 in 1997.

We then started to brain-storm about what the problems could be that come with such a development, also using this map. Questions I asked were

  1. What could be the problem if all the corn is produced at one location in the US, but people need it all over the country?
  2. What would happen if a hurricane hits a major mid-western state? (the kids brought this one actually up by themselves)
  3. Do you think it’s healthy to eat only corn, wheat and soy all day long?
  4. What would a corn-beetle do when its offsprings just need to jump from plant-to-plant, from county to county and from state-to-state?

Undergraduate students working on the Distributed Robot Garden

It was actually easy for the children to articulate that (1) centralized production requires huge transportation cost, (2) natural disasters might have drastic effects on food availability and prices, (3) eating only corn makes you yellow (additional guidance was needed to guide the discussion towards allergies, auto-immune diseases, and type-2 diabetes), and (4) massive amounts of pesticides are necessary to keep mono-cultures under control. This is all nicely summarized by President Barack Obama in a 2008 Time interview:

Our agriculture sector actually is contributing more greenhouse gases than our transportation sector and in the mean time, it’s creating monocultures that are vulnerable to national security threats, are now vulnerable to sky-high food prices or crashes in food prices, huge swings in commodity prices, and are partly responsible for the explosion in our healthcare costs because they’re contributing to type 2 diabetes, stroke and heart disease, obesity, all the things that are driving our huge explosion in healthcare costs.

We then talked about the benefits of producing food locally and relying on companion plants to save on fertilizers and pesticides. Impressive examples are Queen Anne Lace that attracts predatory insects, Crow garlic that masks scents or Clover that fixes Nitrogen in the soil. As great as this might be, doing farming like this would be A LOT of work: if people would need to do this all by themselves, we would be back at 1950 ratios of workforce to people doing the farming.

And THAT’s where the robots can come in: doing  all the nasty work that is required to perform decentralized, small-scale agriculture, where every plant gets just what it needs, and plants are arranged so that they help each other out in the best possible way. Just need a new generation of engineers that takes on the hard work to build them…

Get the full talk here


2 Responses to IBM Camp Innovation for a Smarter Planet

  1. Nikolaus,

    Thanks again for the presentation with our young innovators at Camp Innovation!! It was so important for students to hear how you became interested in robot gardeners initially because of a cool movie (and because they are fun). You really mirrored the process we are encouraging of our future scientists and engineers: Asking questions, like, “So what? How can robots make a difference?” then prototyping and iterating to model the ideas, and applying those ideas to make real-life change in terms of social betterment and productivity. They really loved it.

    Alison Thielke
    Camp Innovation Educator
    St. Vrain Valley School District

  2. […]   Dr. Nikolaus Correl, Assistant Professor of Dept. of Computer Science, CU Boulder, came to discuss his robotic gardeners on Tuesday of week 1 at Camp Innovation. He spoke with the SMARTER ENERGY, SMARTER FOOD, SMARTER TRANSPORTATION, AND SMARTER WATER groups yesterday.  His presentation was personable, at a level students could understand, and he offered opportunity for students to converse.  Afterward, he posted this blog:  Dr. Nikolaus Correl’s Blog […]

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