High–Tech Farming

The future of high-tech industries, or any industry for that matter is uncertain. Firms will go to certain lengths, whether it is to innovate into diverse markets or differentiate their existing products and services, to survive in the market. From manufacturing electronic computing devices, high-tech companies such as Toshiba, Fujitsu and Sony, are few of several firms that are looking to establish a market in the Agriculture industry. Combining the use of their obsolete tech factories, technical facilities and expertise, they are able to support the manufacture of crops through indoor farming.

Indoor farming consist of crops being grown hydroponically–in a controlled environment, supplying nutrients and fertilizers through recycled water and substituting natural sunlight to artificial fluorescent/LED lighting. Similarly, Vertical Farming uses the concept of ‘indoor farming’ but in urban centers, similar to a multistory/skyscraper greenhouse.

As distinctive as the two industries of high technology and agriculture are, agriculture has always been the lower pay, high labour intensive work in comparison to technology production. But would indoor farming change this equation? No doubt that the high-tech industry is a thriving and heavily competitive industry, in which latest computing gadgets; technological functions, software and machinery are continuously evolving to keep up with the market. But as competition gets fierce can indoor agriculture become the ultimate savior for declining high-tech firms in the future? And what impacts would indoor farming have on wider society?

One of the leading Japanese innovation and tech company Toshiba, has began to harness its position into the Agriculture industry. Practicing indoor farming through using their abandoned factories in Tokyo, which had previously manufactured floppy disks in the 1980’s, the company have begun producing large batches of organic lettuces, hoping to grow other vegetables in the future. According to the Quartz Article the latest agenda on Toshibas business plan is to expand in the healthcare business, by supplying medical equipment as well as providing indoor farming services to produce high quality and quantity lettuce and salads. Providing clean room farming facilities, lighting, water disinfection, power generation equipment, and tablets– which workers combine to prevent bacteria in the production process; Toshiba is able to operate indoor–farming effectively, placing the consumable Lettuce into sealed plastic containers, to ensure a longer shelf life than other lettuces.

It is believed that tech firms entering the agriculture market in this way will completely revolutionize the way the farming industry operates and can bring many positive impacts on both society and on high tech and agricultural industries.

No doubt that the increase in population is going to put a huge demand on the production of food. Having limited agricultural land to grow crops due to urbanization will make it much more effective to grow high quality and quantity crops indoors using sophisticated technology.

Further, Climate change has brought unpredictable and uncontrollable weather conditions, making farming very challenging. From Hurricanes in the USA and Japan, to flooding in the UK are just some examples of how extreme weather conditions can disrupt the growth of crops. Therefore, indoor/vertical farming would not only eliminate this problem, but also prevent crops from getting damaged by bugs, pesticides and herbicides, which is another persistent problem of outdoor farming. Besides, expanding the practice of ‘indoor/vertical farming’ would generate jobs for many all around the world.

Quartz Article addresses the benefits of vertical farming stating: Why plant lettuce in a clean room? The obvious answer: Because it’s clean. Everything is tightly controlled, including air pressure, temperature, lighting, bacteria, and dust. The result is a crop that doesn’t need pesticides, doesn’t have bugs, and doesn’t need washing”

This almost sounds like a dream–come–true for traditional organic farmers that would have to constantly monitor their crops under fairly unpredictable weather conditions, to ensure the quality of their crops is intact for trading and consumable purposes.

However, many would debate the idea of this intensive ‘clean room farming’ questioning the nutritional aspect of crops. Similarly to the debate with Genetic Modified Goods, vertical/indoor farming would also be a hot topic on whether the lack of natural sunlight energy and recycled gray water would affect consumers’ long-term health. Besides indoor farming can only grow limited types of crops. Foods such as corn, wheat, barley is best suited for outdoor agriculture.

Nonetheless, the greater concern is the initial high investment costs of these ‘indoor farming systems’ especially in comparison to natural farmlands. But the real question should be whether high-tech companies have the economic feasibility and can guarantee return on their investments, and whether they can use indoor farming to benefit society on a wider scale.

Toshiba’s future goals is to sell indoor farming systems as well as operate them in Middle Eastern countries, where outdoor farming is exceptionally challenging.This would be a great opportunity to not only generate millions of dollars of profit, but also benefit people worldwide suffering with shortage of food, lack of adequate outdoor farming facilities, enabling local grocery stores to stock up and make profit from high quality and quantity crops.

As various high-tech firms are heading in a similar direction, with Fujitsu manufacturing lettuce in semiconductor plans in Japan, Sharp producing strawberries in Dubai and Panasonic producing vegetables in Singapore– the future of indoor farming could progress into a successful one. Although the few uncertainties of costs and the intensive process of indoor farming may raise questions, the basic idea and benefits it would bring would not only benefit high–tech industries but also facilitate production of food for the growing population.

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Tech–No Jobs?

One of the common misconceptions about technology is that it is destroying more jobs than it creates. The notion that ‘robots can implicate the human labour workforce’ is creating this illusion of a dire future human labour workforce, where many will become jobless. So I have taken the plunge to prove the fact how robots cannot exceed the human intellect in all areas of work, thus the human workforce will still be required more than ever, particularly with the rise in sophisticated technology.

‘Impressive advances in computer technology—from improved industrial robotics to automated translation services—are largely behind the sluggish employment growth of the last 10 to 15 years.’ The professor at MIT Sloan School of Management, Erik Brynjolfsson and his co–author Andrew McAfee shared this statement corresponding with their book, Race Against the Machine. The authors highlight how organizations are substituting technology for people, and that corporate use of technologies such as the Web, artificial intelligence, big data, improved analytics with the ever increasing and availability of cheap computing power and storage capacityare automating many regular routine work leaving many jobless.

Surely this comes at no surprise, as the number of manual routine work has declined significantly since the fall of the 20th century. But is technology really this job-eating monster, as these ‘technology pundits’ make it out to be?

The Rational Optimist Matt Ridley, notes how in the 1700s four out of five British workers were employed on farms, but as technology evolved and made it possible for tractors and combine harvesters, lesser manual labour intensive work remained, with just one-in-fifty remaining in manual farm jobs by the 1900s. This clearly shows how technology eased the pressure of human labour workforce but doesn’t explain why people are in employment more than ever before.

The automation of low skilled manual jobs not only reduced the human labour workforce and increased productivity, but it also induced a human labor shift where people re-skilled themselves to adapt to new technology. This contributed to a number of job opportunities in the service sector, requiring higher level of skills, education and training. Consequently, these higher skilled jobs paid a higher rate of salary, which meant that workers had more disposal income to spend on quality of products and services such as food, travel, leisure and housing; resulting to a greater demand for jobs across industries. However, some would argue that other factors can form part of this equation such as your social class, education, shift in urbanization, economic growth as well as pure luck.

Rising incomes generate higher standards and expectations, bringing changes in lifestyle that creates new needs and new commercial activities.

To further deter this notion of ‘technology destroys more jobs than it creates’, Professor James Bessen mentions in his blog how this argument was consistently wrong and how the ‘offsetting benefits of automation’ were ignored. He writes:

During the 19th century, machines took over tasks performed by weavers, eliminating 98 percent of the labor needed to weave a yard of cloth. But this mechanization also brought a benefit: It sharply reduced the price of cloth, so people consumed much more. Greater demand for cloth meant that the number of textile jobs quadrupled despite the automation.’

Ridley’s blog further questions why significant amount of women are in employment more than ever, despite domestic services evolving frommangles and dusters’ into mechanized technology such as washing up machines and electric vacuum cleaners. His statement indicates how technology has played a great factor in liberating women in the domestic field, making it convenient for women to do housework efficiently without compromising childcare and their careers. However, one could question this by examining the other factors that could contribute to more women in the workplace such as the use of contraceptives, change of gender roles in society and the change in women’s aspirations?

At this stage your probably thinking if technology has the solution to most human skilled jobs, and that robots can replicate the human behaviour, then what is there left for people to do? Well, firstly it is we humans that design these innovative robotic technologies to perform various duties to relieve the human labor workforce. Therefore, if we are eliminating the human labour workforce by introducing technology into our corporate businesses then we are somewhat balancing this out by employing various people to design and manufacture these. We are increasing the demand for software, mechanical, electronic, and design engineers who can work on these technological projects, supporting in R&D, materials and manufacture. After all, technologies are forever evolving with societies current needs and wants, and no technology would be sufficient to carry out the same task for too long before going obsolete.

Now to question whether robots can adequately replicate all areas of the human labour workforce? The answer is simply No! Humans have a far greater intellect and are much better at aspects concerning creativity, innovation, Art, Science, Manual labour work, interpersonal skills and entertainment.

According to Brynjolfsson and the study by Oxford martin School & faculty of Philosophy there are three key areas of human endeavor that will be resistant to automation in the short and medium term.

  1. Manual Jobs. These types of jobs require physical strength from humans, such as shelf stocking, Rail track construction, reflexologist, massage therapists, mechanics, health care worker, which often involve working class people with lower wages. Technology cannot replicate manual job roles as lower level skills require much more computational resources in comparison to high level reasoning jobs.  Robotic Researchers Hans Moravec et al discovered this Moravec’s Paradox stating that “it is comparatively easy to make computers exhibit adult level performance on intelligence tests or playing checkers, but difficult to give them the skills of a one-year-old when it comes to perception and mobility.”
  1. Creativity is another key area, which would be resilient to machines. Brynjolfsson adds “Digital technologies are in many ways complements, not substitutes for, creativity,” Digitalization is becoming huge in form of marketing to create songs,videos and even Art pieces, where technology is used to aid the creative process rather than replace it.
  1. Interpersonal skills are another major key skills which humans have a better deal at than machines. Being able to nurture, care, motivate and advise people are much effective through human interactions. Hence, Sales assistance, health care workers, nurses, chefs, school teachers, managers, entrepreneurs are just some examples of how humans would be better at than machines.

Brynjolfsson and McAfee state how the key to winning the race is not to compete against machines but to compete with machines”, Hence using technology as a tool to aid us to progress, rather than to use it to replace the human labor workforce. This sounds like a reasonable argument, especially as technology is not always feasible in some areas of the human labour workforce.

When it comes to talking of employment, the types that are emerging with the ever-evolving technology would surprise one. The increase use and access of smart devices such as mobile phones, tablets and PC’s have broadened our opportunities in various fields of work such as creativity, leisure, personal use etc. The use of Jobs such as Business architect, Data Scientist, Social Media architect, Mobile technology expert, Enterprise mobile developer, cloud architect are just a few of many jobs that did not exist before, all thanks to technological advancements.  Living in the 21st century, smart devices enable us to do so much more than the traditional way of working. For e.g. YouTube has become the Internet sensation with millions of people globally uploading videos and getting paid for it, where some even claim it to be their ‘full time profession’.

No doubt that technology will continually evolve in the future and diminish aspects of the human labour workforce, but it will undoubtedly create an array of job opportunities in various industries as well as being unable to replace jobs that are best suited for humans. So the notion that ‘technology destroys more jobs than it creates’ is false. No matter how far technology advances there will always be jobs available for us to do. After all, if humans build technology, they must also operate them.

Big Brother 2.0: Technological Paranoia

Are we living in this societal Panopticon, where we use bits of sticky paper to cover the fronts of our PC webcams, or think twice about doing something in public without the thought of someone watching us through CCTV cameras? Where has this technological paranoia come from? And do we have valid reasons to take extra precautions?

The concept of ‘Big Brother’ derived from George Orwell’s novel ‘Nighteen Eighty Four’ shares the idea that society is kept under constant surveillance by the authorities using ‘telescreens’. Back in the day, these telescreens were no more advance than analogue cameras and videocassette recordings.

In the recent 21st century, technology has evolved like no other, becoming innovative, powerful and ambiguous–in the sense that we are unaware of the associated risks. Latest digital technology can be universally connected via series of computer networks, where billions of digital devices are interconnected and stripped real time data and information; denoting this era of ‘Big Brother 2.0’.

Big Brother was used to describe the abuse of power, lack of privacy and an overly controlling authority figure who carried out mass surveillance, although some viewed it as a form of government protection. Consequently we are still under a certain degree of abuse, social control, and puppets of our own government system, being vigilantly controlled, whether this is in the form of CCTV cameras, facial and audio recognition, government’s access to our social media networks, mobile phone tracking and tapping, RFID chips etc.

According to the International Business Times article,  the average Londoner is filmed at least 300 times a day.

One could argue within the next decade privacy would be just a myth. The only thing that could ever be private is what is in our hearts or minds, but devious technologies are also being designed in ways to stimulate peoples thinking, logic and reasoning for various medical/psychological purposes.

As technology is evolving, do we ever think about the amount of information we are sharing? Where the data from these technologies is going or who is benefiting from it? Are we even aware of the risks associated with technological abuse?

Speaking of technological abuse, today’s Metro’s front page headline read ‘200,000 nude snapchat user photos hacked’ where half were thought to be nude photographs from children’s accounts aged 13–17. Although this news story didn’t surprise me, I began to wonder how exactly is the ‘privacy’ aspect of these social media really private at all?

Our personal digital content is not physically tangible to us, so one should never expect it to be of ‘private content’. Rather, It is stored on a central online cloud storage system that forms our ‘private’ data.

This news story reaffirms the idea that our privacy is compromised on virtual platforms as well as in our day–to–day lives.

Privacy researcher, Christopher Soghoian delivered on TED Talks of how the government is utilising technology from private companies to gain access to digital devices, to monitor online/offline activity and steal confidential information without any signs of detection. So imagine being oblivious to the fact that authorities are monitoring you through your computer webcam and microphone.  This thought provokes paranoia and questions the right to privacy? Soghoian also mentioned how the police have the capacity to carry out this remote monitoring procedure on people they deem criminals or suspicious to crime.

Michael Foucault mentions in Discipline and Punish (1975) of ‘technologies of punishment’, of which he describes Jeremy Bentham’s design of the ‘Panopticon’ to illustrate the impact of constant surveillance has on individuals in prison like institutions, and the effect it has on wider society. The ‘Panopticon’ was primarily a circular based prison design where prisoners were unable to see one another, yet the guards had a 360-degree view of all inmates through a central station.

Foucault theorized the panopticon as this automatic functioning of power’ where inmates psychologically knew that they are being watched so would maintain social order in the prison. Likewise, one could argue that society is a panopticon, controlled by ‘Big Brother 2.0’?

Increasingly social media such as Facebook and Twitter could be seen as developing into a panopticon. We use these platforms to upload a desirable version of ourselves to impress the ‘watchmen’ i.e. Our friends/family and people who view our profiles. Hence people’s judgments are somewhat socially constructing our behaviour,  providing us with this ‘self surveillance’ to ensure that we are conforming to what our network of friends want to see. Facebook’s updating your status feature (‘What is on your mind?’) allows users to develop a personal comfort level with the application, but unknowingly makes them victims of targeted sales and advertisements based on their shared data. Therefore digital technology has the power to monitor and influence the behaviour of its users mind, just as Bentham’s Panopticon had the power to observe the physical behaviour of the inmates.

Peter Vlemmix’s documentary on the existence of how this ‘digital panopticon is implicating our rights to privacy’ shows how the Dutch government (like any other government) are also integrating sophisticated surveillance technology. From Facial and Audio recognition in buses, Age detector machines to purchase alcohol in local shops, Automatic Number Plate Recognition (ANPR), CCTV Cameras and much more. But what was interesting to see is how oblivious people were to the type of information that was being collected by authorities. For instance, when passengers boarded the public Bus, a discrete facial recognition camera system captured their faces and ran a background profile check, comprising of personal data. This data was then stored on the transport data system for months before deleted, which makes one skeptical to think how authorities can take advantage of this, without the right to privacy being compromised.

Is our government cementing this ‘panopticon’, solely for the sake of our security? Or are there also additional hidden agendas that we are not clued up on? Who knows? Hence having technological paranoia is not being unreasonable, but is being practical and taking precautionary to what information is being spoon-fed by our government.