Automation: the big picture
There are examples of automation that have a more tangible, real-world relevance, however, and they give a sense of the potentially awe-inspiring degree to which automated technologies could shape our future.
It has been referred to in some quarters as Automation 2.0; the idea that the first phase of automation replaced certain jobs wholesale (e.g. mechanised/robotic production lines that eliminate the need for manual labour), and that we are now entering the software phase that will see humans working with their robotic underlings/colleagues in a harmonious synthesis of high-powered data crunching and organic emotional intelligence.
CCTV surveillance, for example, is enabling computers to rapidly comb hitherto unprecedented quantities of footage in search of ne’er-do-wells/people dressed a certain way.
A company called SeeQuestor has developed software that recognises the presence of people on video, can sense motion and allows users to filter individuals caught on camera by gender, whether they’re wearing hats or glasses, and the colour of their clothes.
It can’t recognise faces, so human input is still required to rifle through the thumbnail gallery of mug shots collated by the software. Nevertheless, it turns out that some of the plot mechanics on display in the Bourne franchise of films are less ridiculous than they have any right to be, and this parallel is a salient reminder that the technology has just as much potential to subvert security as it does to strengthen it.
At the earthier – and far more tangible – end of the spectrum is the increasing sophistication of automated farming. Drones are already used to aerially monitor crop health and soil conditions, while sensors in the ground measure water and nutrients in the soil and are able to initiate irrigation or fertiliser application where necessary.
Now, a team of Harper Adams University engineering staff have teamed up with farming technology firm Precision Decisions Ltd. for the Hands Free Hectare project, creating the world’s first field to be farmed without a human setting foot in it.
The team will use drones and automated tractors to grow and harvest a hectare of cereal crop, with the intention to plant in March and harvest in September. They’re currently in the process of testing a number of prototypes, and you can keep track of the team’s progress in real-time here.
— HandsFreeHectare (@FreeHectare) November 11, 2016
But even though the goal is to have no humans in the field, the idea at the core of the project is still for automation to aid workers rather than replace them. In the words of project member Kit Franklin, “it’s not about putting people out of jobs; instead changing the job they do. The tractor driver won’t be physically in the tractor driving up and down a field. Instead, they will be a fleet manager and agricultural analysts, looking after a number of farming robots and meticulously monitoring the development of their crops.”
Global claims are being staked in the advancement of a wide variety of automated farming. Norway has recently developed software-run salmon farming rigs; Japan has a completely autonomous vertical lettuce farm; French vintners are using drones to prune and measure the health of their vines. (More info on all of the above here).
These prospects seem not only like a relatively benign implementation of technology, but a necessary one too, given that the World Bank predicts we’ll need to be producing 50% more food in 2050 than we are now if we’re to sustain a projected population of 9 billion.
Again, it’s clear that automation has almost endless potential to simultaneously make our lives easier and more productive. It seems sensible to embrace it, particularly if we are to survive the ascension of our robot overlords during Automation 3.0, and the singularity that will be heralded by Automation 4.0.