Why farming is facing disruption

17 Feb, 2018 04:08 PM
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The challenge for dairy would be to differentiate itself from these bioengineered products...

A rapid wave of change is sweeping across the world disrupting every aspect of human existence, the Australian Dairy Conference in Melbourne in February was told.

And the pace of that change is only going to increase.

Kaila Colbin, from the Silicon Valley think-tank the Singularity University, told the conference that farmers - like everyone else - needed to be ready as technology, such as the development of bioengineered proteins, would fundamentally challenge what they did.

Ms Colbin provided three insights to explain why the changes the world faced now were unlike anything that had occurred in the past.

The first insight was the law of accelerating returns - that the price performance of computing doubled about every two years. This meant that the number of computerised instructions that could be generated for a certain amount of dollars doubled every two years.

“Today for $1000, you can buy roughly the same number of instructions per second as a mouse brain can process,” she said. “By 2023 - in just five years from now - for $1000 you will be able to buy the number of instructions per second a human brain can process and by 2049 for $1000 you will be able to buy the instructions per second of all human brains on the planet combined.”

The second insight was that this did not only apply to computing but to anything that used this computing power and so was information enabled. Examples included artificial intelligence, robotics, biotechnology, nanotechnology, neuroscience and energy.

The third insight was that when these technologies converged, the rate of change accelerated even faster.

Ms Colbin said this rate of change meant the world would soon reach the point of technological singularity — the crucial moment when machines become smarter than humans.

This exponential rate of change was particularly difficult for humans to understand, as our brains had evolved to see things in linear patterns.

The initial slow rate of exponential change also meant most experts could not anticipate the rapid rate of change that would occur.

“The difference between something following a linear trajectory and something following a doubling curve is the same as 30 linear steps and I am at the back of the room, 30 doubling steps and we are 26 times around the planet,” she said.

“And the tricky thing there is that you are not halfway until the 29th step. So it’s really hard to measure progress as you go.”

This was important because a systematic, disciplined approach was needed to respond to the change that was occurring.

It also meant that at a certain point, the change would suddenly seem to cascade uncontrollably - leading to disruption.

Ms Colbin said these changes would provide a huge opportunity to solve education, environmental, health, energy and other issues - and this was already happening. Extreme poverty was now at the lowest level it had ever been at in the world, while new developments in medicine were making a huge difference.

But it would impact on most jobs. Up to 40 per cent of current jobs would be under threat from technology by 2023

Artificial intelligence was now so good that the “thinking jobs” that were once the exclusive domain of humans were under threat.

Ms Colbin said the change was so fundamental that it meant people now needed to question what was the purpose of being human.

The idea of a universal basic income was emerging, allowing people more time to do things other than work. But the challenge was that people still defined themselves by their job.

For agriculture, Ms Colbin said the changes would hit in three key areas.

The first was the continued emergence of technologies that automated things that were already done on the farm. Examples included self-driving tractors or drones that could be used to check crops for ripeness.

The second was where the rapid development of technology in another industry would impact agriculture. An example was LED lighting, the cost performance of which had improved by 95 per cent. This now meant indoor farming was price competitive with traditional farming and could disrupt it.

The third was the development of bioengineered products, such as bioengineered milk and meat. The exponential rate of change meant the cost of these products was falling rapidly.

While these products might have a certain ‘yuck’ factor to some consumers, they would appeal to industrial caterers and food production companies who wanted to buy bulk quantities and could be guaranteed total certainty of supply.

The challenge for dairy would be to differentiate itself from these bioengineered products and “go hard” in the opposite direction, connecting consumers directly to the farm or cow that produced the milk.

Reacting to change

Founder of innovation practitioner Minds at Work Jason Clarke told the conference how people reacted to change was the key to managing it. Change could be “exciting and frightening at the same time”.

People need to be curious and open to the challenge but those at the top found this difficult. Companies in the number one position had traditions and respect, but they often did not have the time to think about alternatives, lacked the freedom to experiment, had no motivation to disrupt and had little appetite for failure.

Outsiders had the advantage. A new product worked if it met a need, filled a niche, righted a wrong or seized an opportunity.

Mr Clarke said every great idea had a use-by date, using the ice-cutting industry as an example of one that was ultimately disrupted by the invention of refrigeration. But none of the businesses involved in ice-cutting had moved into refrigeration. Companies at the top were invested in the current process.

The time to start thinking about change was when someone recognised that the things they had always done were getting harder and doing things a different way was getting easier.

Today it was now easier to transmit than to transport, easier to collaborate than compete and easier to share stuff than to own it.

Mr Clarke said people needed to think like innovators. Innovators saw the future need first - they were able to predict what people were going to need.

If life was easy, people wouldn't be so good at invention. Look for the things that annoyed. “If necessity is the mother of invention, then irritation is its father,” he said.

And look for the possibilities in mistakes. Champagne was the classic example of something that had gone wrong and created something better.

Why artificial milk is here to stay

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Carlene Dowie

Carlene Dowie

is editor of Australian Dairyfarmer magazine

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