Robots will control everything you eat

It starts with a seed. That seed — maybe it’s a tomato seed — gets planted into the ground. Then it grows. And grows. Slowly, the plant pierces through the soil, emerging into the light. Weeks to months later, this seed becomes a plant, waist-high, bearing dozens of ripe tomatoes. Someone picks the fruit and packs it into a box. Someone else ships those boxes to warehouses where a restaurant or grocery buys the tomatoes. Later, a cook will take one, cut it up and put it in a salad.

Today, this process is still pretty low tech. Sure, there are cars and trucks involved, but robotics? Not as much. People are still key players at every step. But that may change, and soon.

“There are major technologies coming in the next 10 years to make each part of farming more efficient, more productive and hopefully healthier and less expensive,” says Dan Steere. He heads up a company called Abundant Robotics in Menlo Park, Calif.

In other words, robots increasingly are going to play roles in growing and preparing our food.

By time the time kids in middle school become adults, the entire food cycle may be robotic. Even now, robots help farmers. Some plant fruits, vegetables and grains in a more efficient way. Soon, they’ll help harvest that food more quickly. Some food warehouses already have self-driving trucks. Robots will even help get that food onto our plates. In fact, a robot named Sally is already doing just that. The goal is to make the way food is produced and prepared faster, easier and more efficient.

Getting seeds in the ground

Every field has some areas that are naturally less fertile than others. Farmland may not be level, either. It can have areas that rise or are lower than their surroundings. There may even be ditches. Plowing evens out the ground somewhat, but never completely. If a creek runs through a field, there’s always going to be land near that creek where it’s difficult — or impossible — to plant. Soil quality also varies throughout a field.

All of these things can impact how much food the land can produce and how good that food will taste. And the amount of food produced affects how much money a farmer makes.

Math helps farmers calculate how many seeds to plant and where. But land also changes over time, so these calculations must be done over and over again every year.

A quadcopter drone moves over a farm, taking pictures from the air. This can map the quality of the soil, any crops and even pests.ackab1/Flickr (CC-BY-SA 2.0)

Theo Pistorius is head of a company called DroneClouds. It’s in Cape Town, South Africa. His is one of many companies using drones to help farmers know where to plant. Drone is slang for unmanned aerial aircraft a flying robot. The craft that DroneClouds uses has five cameras. Pistorius says each camera “is essentially [like] a camera on an iPhone.” But not a normal iPhone. He says think of each as “a very specialized, aerial iPhone, with a very specialized, calibrated camera.”

As the drone’s cameras fly overhead, they take pictures of the land. These show field size and the different lays of the land. They also reveal soil variation and any irrigation problems. They even show where insects and fungus might cause problems.

Next, DroneClouds processes those images to create a map of the field and what’s growing in it. “We then do analyses to interpret it for the farmer,” explains Pistorius. If the images come from an apple orchard, for instance, they might look at how the trees are growing. They’ll note where tall weeds might cause a brand new tree to struggle.

A farmer in Zimbabwe holds a drone used for aerial crop mapping. This is just one of the ways in which robots are becoming involved in food production.International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center/Flickr (CC-BY-NC-SA 2.0)

To pinpoint problems, analysts compare these pictures to others of the same crop. This is called comparative analysis. Pistorius says it’s like running a race, then comparing your time today to what it was earlier in the season. That lets you measure how much you’ve improved. But runners also compare their time against other runners. So farmers compare pictures of their field to those of other farmers. This is known as a signature-based analysis.

“The ideal pictures come from labs all across the world,” Pistorius says. “Every four years, scientists from the Agricultural Research Commission

meet with labs [in the United States], and take a bunch of signatures.” This way farmers in both countries can help each other.

Picking fruit

Consistently monitored, the little plants grow. Day after day, the sun rises and falls. Sometimes it shines, other times there’s rain. Finally, harvest time arrives. And with it comes new, cutting-edge work in farm robotics.

For two years, Abundant Robotics has been developing a robot that picks apples. Two years? Isn’t picking apples easy?

Not if you’re a robot.

To understand why apple picking is hard for a machine, let’s break down the process. When you see an apple hanging on a tree, your eyes send a signal to your brain. The brain processes the data in this signal — such as the apple’s color and where it is on the tree. Instinctively, you’ll know when the apple’s ready to pick. Your brain then tells your arm to reach out and your hand to pull the fruit away from its branch. You hold the apple like you would a bird — gently enough not to bruise it, but firmly enough that it doesn’t fall away.

For people, picking an apple is so easy, even a kid can do it. But for robots, this simple activity used to be impossible.bubutu-/iStockphoto

When you pick an apple, you make all these decisions quickly. But if you needed to pick an entire field’s worth of apples, it would take a very, very long time. After you picked one apple, you’d have to put it in a basket. The next apple would go in there, too, and the next, until your basket was full. Then down the ladder you’d go, where you’d have to empty your basket before climbing back up to start again.

Doing this for hundreds of trees would be incredibly time consuming. That’s why people are seeking help from robots. When Abundant Robotics is done, farmers will be able to plant more trees. And they won’t be worried about part of their crop rotting in the field because people weren’t able to pick it all in time.

The first problem Abundant Robotics had to solve was acquiring the right signals. “If you don’t have a good pair of eyes, it’s hard to do a lot of tasks in the real world,” Steere says. So the company had to give their robot what Steere calls “a better pair of eyes.” This system — and how it connects to a robot’s brain — is known as computer vision. Computer vision helps the robot see “every surface of an apple,” says Steere, in addition to judging its size, color and weight. It can even scout for any defects in the fruit. Such systems are rapidly improving what robots can do.

Yet even with super eyes, the apple robot still had to learn how to physically pick the fruit without hurting it. In robotics, movement is called animation. Steere says, “Heavy animation damages the fruit.” If it bruises the apple or cuts through the skin, the fruit may look bad and likely won’t sell. Rough handling also can damage trees.

So the robot must coordinate its vision and motor skills. Think back to the apple-picking process: You have to know which apple to pick. You have to pick it quickly and gently. But what else? You can’t disturb apples on the tree that still need time to grow. “The vision has to … recognize fruit,” Steere says, and “recognize whether it’s ripe or not.” And it has to do all that in a fraction of a second.

“People have wanted to automate this type of agriculture for decades. It’s just never been possible,” he says. Even after two years, his team’s work still is not done! Abundant’s robot won’t go on sale until later this year. Developing great tech is like farming — it takes patience.

Sorting the harvest

Coffee berries come in many colors. A new robot can quickly sort the good ones from the bad.Bonga1965/iStockphoto

Once the crop been picked, good fruit must be sorted from the bad. That’s what a company called bext360 does. Instead of apples, its robot works with cocoa, nuts, cardamom (a spice) and coffee cherries (the fruit that holds coffee beans). Daniel Jones heads the company, based in Denver, Colo.

Take those coffee cherries. “The farmers would harvest their coffee and place it in our machine,” Jones explains. “Then the machine drops [the fruit] through a visioning system.” Picture a waterfall of cherries falling. That’s what the machine stares at, all the while taking pictures of the passing fruit. The robot then uses those pictures to sort good coffee cherries from bad.

Machine vision and computer vision are essentially the same thing. Abundant and best360’s robots do different tasks. Still, the same core technology helps both of them do it.

Before building a robot, engineers draw a design of what it will look like. This is the design for bext360’s coffee robot.Garrett Ziegler

Both robots also need more than computer vision to succeed. Vision can tell bext360’s robot how to sort, but then the robot actually has to do it. Farmers harvest coffee cherries — up to 30 kilograms (66 pounds) — from one section of their field at a time. Then they load cherries holding some 18,000 beans into a chute on top of the robot.

Within about 3 minutes, the robot will have individually sorted every cherry. To do that, the robot has to take a picture of each one. Then it analyzes them all in a mere 22 milliseconds or so. “We’ll know everything about them in that split second that they fall through [the chute],” says Jones. Puffs of air then push the cherries into different bins — one for good fruit, another for rejects.

After the coffee cherry falls, the robot shares its analysis with the farmer. “The main things [the robot measures] are size and color and density,” says Jones. It also checks the inside and outside of the cherry for signs of rot or disease. This is why farmers only put cherries from one part of their field in at a time. This information helps them know if something they tried in one part of a field worked better than something they tried elsewhere.

The robot from bext360 is still new: Sales only started about six months ago.

Onto the plate

Picked, analyzed and sorted, a harvest now goes to a warehouse. One day, it might get there in a self-driving semi-truck. And a self-driving forklift might move the pallets off the truck and onto another that is destined for a restaurant or store. Amazon already has a grocery store just for employees that doesn’t have any human stockers or check-out clerks: They’re all robots.

This forklift doesn’t need a driver. It can drive itself.StraSSenBahn/Wikimedia Commons (CC-BY-SA 3.0)

Finally, the food might end up with our last robot: Sally. Sally makes salads. From the outside, she looks like a box. There’s a touchscreen and a hole where a bowl can be placed. Inside, though, this robot’s more complicated. “Sally is a box with the robotic components on the inside,” notes Deepak Sekar. He heads up Chowbotics, in Redwood City, Calif. It’s the company that makes Sally.

“There are cylinders inside the robot that are filled with prepped ingredients,” Sekar explains. People activate Sally by pressing the touchscreen. Diners can customize their salads by calorie count and ingredients.

At $30,000 per robot, Sally isn’t designed to be used at home. Chowbotics sells the robot to schools and offices, which use Sally in cafeterias and breakrooms. Observes Sekar: “We hear all the time that students in schools don’t like eating from salad bars.” Why? Sekar claims they’re gross. “Because all the ingredients are inside Sally, you don’t have to wonder if someone sneezed on the tomatoes an hour ago — ew!,” he says. “Your salad is always fresh and healthy.”  

Robots aren’t in every part of the field-to-plate process yet. But soon they will be. This will make the food process cooler for us. Even more importantly, robots could one day even out the world’s food supply. Think about it: Today, DroneClouds helps farmers know how to plant more. bext360 helps them know how to plant more efficiently. Abundant Robotics helps growers harvest more quickly — which means farmers can plant more. Then Chowbotics stores that produce in a healthier way.

Says Steere, “If there was ever a time [for] a young person going into farming — this has gotta be one of the most amazing times in history. The kind of things that automation can do is going to continue to change and to evolve quickly.” 

15 ways how to grow your Startup

Hi everyone! So you arrive at the point where you think and realize on taking your precious startup on the next level? And have you ever been curious what it takes to grow your startup? Here are the top 15 guiding principles on growing you startup. I made it plain and simple for you so most of readers can relate.

Most of entrepreneurs, startuppers and founders get overwhelmed easily with stuff when it comes to just starting a startup, there’s a lot of things to learn or to know, just imagine when you have to scale it. Well you don’t have to be no more, atleast when you want to grow your startup to bigger scale or markets.

Startups and companies like AirBnB, Uber, Glances (AR Facial Recognition startup), Away (startup for selling high end luggages), Warby Parker (startup for prescription glasses) or even SpaceX has proven to follow atleast 10 of these.

Below are 15 simple key principles that are results of my research analysis about successful startups and companies up to this date and these principles are fitting and applies to the upcoming year 2018.

  1. Pick good co-founders — Also pick a great and talented diverse team
  2. Launch fast, learn fast and move fast — MVP
  3. Let your idea evolve
  4. Understand your users — Every user is an evangelist of your product
  5. Make your users love you
  6. Offer good customer service — i mean really really good, this is something you can be much better with than fully-grown companies
  7. You make what you measure
  8. Spend as little as possible — remember money can either something or everything.
  9. Avoid distractions
  10. Don’t get demoralized — believe in you, your team and on your vision no matter what!
  11. Don’t give up — Obstacles on your startup are requirements for your achievements
  12. Deals fall through — Never stop trying and always be bold
  13. Engage through social media — must have!
  14. Get a very talented and open-minded design team
  15. Keep moving forward

One last thing…

Word of mouth marketing — the most valuable form of marketing , you can’t buy it. You can only deliver it. Aside from the product you are offering, if for example you’re deciding about merch pieces, t-shirts or hats or stickers, they have to be weill designed and cool enough for somebody to want to buy it or the wear it, walk around advertising the brand of your startup.

4 Ways to Improve Your Office’s Work Environment

Your work environment impacts your mood, drive and performance. If employees work in a dreary office setting with unfriendly workers, they likely won’t feel motivated or confident to speak up. That’s why creating a productive work environment is critical to the overall success of your company.

Here are four ways you can improve your work environment and, in turn, employee engagement.

1. Hire great team members (and don’t be afraid to let bad ones go)

Smart businesses know that a good work environment starts with hiring the right people. Make sure employees are professional and team players. The same idea translates to those who are already in the office. When employees work with toxic workers, they are more likely to become toxic themselves.

“It’s amazing to watch one bad attitude affect everyone’s daily performance,” said Claire Marshall Crowell, chief operating officer of A. Marshall Family Foods/Puckett’s Grocery & Restaurant. “I can’t tell you how many times I have been thanked after letting poisonous employees go. Though it’s a hard thing to do, it ultimately impacts the working environment, which can be felt by not only our employees but also by our [customers].”

2. Improve the lighting

Lighting plays a vital role in workers’ performance and attitude. An article by MBA@UNC, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Kenan-Flagler’s online MBA program, states that exposure to natural light improves mood and energy, greatly impacting focus and productivity. But according to a survey by Pots Planters and More, nearly half of office workers said there is little to no natural light in their office.

If it’s not possible to incorporate natural lighting through windows, there are other options. Blue-enriched light bulbs may reduce fatigue and increase happiness and work performance, according to the article. Use this type of lighting in brainstorming rooms. In meeting or break rooms, use warmer tones to promote calmness and relaxation. In conference rooms, use middle tones that welcome workers while keeping them alert.

3. Make the office comfortable

Working in a clean, attractive office can have tremendous effects on co-workers and manager relationships, said Mike Canarelli, CEO and co-founder of Web Talent Marketing.

“Even if the sun can’t shine into your workplace, make an effort to provide a relaxing atmosphere with comfy furniture, working equipment and a few ‘extra-mile’ amenities,” he noted.

For example, give your employees the flexibility to choose to work where they’re comfortable, including comfy chairs or a choice of whether to sit or stand at their desks.

According to the Pots Planters & More survey, people who labeled their work furniture as “bad” are three times more likely to consider their environment as less productive, and two times more likely to find it “depressing.”

“Make it easy for [workers] to purchase things like exercise balls and plants on the company dime,” said AJ Shankar, CEO and founder of litigation software company Everlaw. “We also trust our employees to manage their own time. They’re free to take breaks to play games or just recharge as necessary.”

When employees choose a space that makes them comfortable, give them the freedom to customize their area, as everyone works differently, said Josh Turner, CEO of user feedback platform UsersThink. He suggested getting rid of the “same-issued everything” and giving everyone a budget to customize their own setup.

4. Improve communication

Be cognizant of how you’re interacting with employees. Team members and upper management should focus on their communication methods and the effects they have on the office environment.

“Employees are motivated and feel valued when they’re given positive reinforcement and shown how their work contributes to the success of the business,” said Dominique Jones, former chief people officer at Halogen Software.

This means offering employees specific feedback on how their work is feeding into the broader business objectives, she noted.

But employees shouldn’t be the only ones being evaluated. Managers should be open to feedback as well, said Samantha Lambert, director of human resources at Blue Fountain Media.

“When you involve your staff in decision-making in an effort to create a better work environment, they feel valued,” Lambert said. “Don’t be afraid to ask employees for their opinion on a new benefit offered, or what they think of a new client project.”

While you’re working on communication, don’t forget to show gratitude for hard work. According to David Sturt, executive vice president of marketing and business development at the O.C. Tanner Institute, effective employee recognition can transform and elevate an organization.

“It ignites enthusiasm, increases innovation, builds trust and drives bottom-line results,” he said. “Even a simple ‘thank you’ after an employee goes above and beyond on a project, or puts in a series of late nights, goes a long way.”

On the Facebook Like button, and why it’s awful.

In Company of One, around page 8, I wrote:

It was a hackathon that led to the creation of Facebook’s “Like” button, which arguably connects its ecosystem to the rest of the internet.

It seems like a fairly innocuous sentence. While it’s factually true and fits into the overarching story, there’s a huge failure by omission on my part.

What I failed to mention is that the Like button is awful. It’s an awful feature from an awful company, from an awful type of product, run by horribly awful leadership. Let me explain.

First, Facebook keeps getting into hot water because of the lines they’re willing to cross to make money. It’s not just Facebook, most massive (tech) companies do it, but it’s easy to single them out because they’ve made so many morally gross decisions. Like selling user data, exploiting teens who are feeling anxious or insecure, and even paying teens a pittance to watch and track their every move online. And, this is just what they’ve been caught doing. Who knows what they’ve gotten or are currently getting away with? Even with the bad PR, Facebook’s profit is unscathed, showing that we’re willing to trade our privacy and data for “free” use of their platform.

Second, the Like button specifically creates intermittent reinforcement to heighten our desire for social approval. This has been studied numerous times by behavioural psychologists, as a way to shortcut our dopamine system and make us take part in that behaviour far more than we should. As in, wanting social approval is a deep human need (we’re social creatures) and getting it at random intervals from people liking our status updates on platforms like Facebook, keep us anxious and compulsively seeking more.

Studies are finding that on average we spend 4 hours a day on our phones, checking them every 12 minutes—on vacation (it’s far more if it’s a work day). A lot of this has to do with “social” media platforms being built specifically to encourage checking them as often as possible for those bursts of dopamine.

Third, these platforms being called “social platforms” or “social media” seem to be a huge misnomer. Research indicates using them increases—not decreases—loneliness and depression. The Like button specifically heightens anxiety and decreases feelings of self-worth. We use these platforms because we seek validation and human acknowledgement and interaction, but never get it. So we come back (at least every 12 minutes). Looking for self-worth on these platforms is a false dichotomy—how can we increase “self” from external factors? How we can place any part of worth in the number of clicks we get on a heart after our updates?

Facebook’s own former president, Sean Parker, said their platform was “exploiting vulnerability in human psychology”. Facebook is easy to point at but every other platform like theirs, from Twitter to their Instagram, works the same way. Sean continued, “The short-term, dopamine-driven feedback loops we’ve created are destroying how society works.”

Interactions on these platforms feel like social interaction but since they’re not we continue to crave it and continue coming back. They shouldn’t be called “social networks” because they’re more exploitive than social. “Exploitive networks” sounds harsh, but it’s more honest.

Which begs the question, what do we do now?

Exits en masse sound great, as do digital detoxes, but going back to a Luddite life without tech seems a touch too far. Personally, I’ve spent years thinking about this subject. I don’t want to support or use platforms that are detrimental not only to my own mental health but to our greater social fabric. So I’m not on Facebook or Instagram. But I do use and enjoy Twitter (mostly because I use the platform to start conversations that continue off of Twitter). I really don’t have the answer to how we should deal with or use these platforms.

My favourite take on acknowledging and existing in a world where “social” media exists is from Farhad Manjoo of the New York Times. He suggests we do three things to deal with any new platform (or technology) that comes out.

  1. Look at the business model, not just the product. If they don’t charge the users, they’re making money some other way. Probably selling the data you’re freely giving them. So before joining another network or picking up a new piece of tech, consider how and where the money flows.
  2. Stop feeding giants. Players in any market or industry that create monopolies undermine consumer choice and ruin innovation. But also, it’s harder to be moral or ethical if you’re required to rapidly grow and dominate at all costs (I wrote a whole book about this, as you probably remember).
  3. Slow down. Early adopters of anything don’t have the full story, full picture, or know the ramifications of using something. Plus, early versions of anything tend to be filled with bugs and security issues. Adopt new tech and platforms late, only after more information is available.

I would add a final point, specifically in regards to “social media” and that’s to be aware. Specifically, be aware of:

  • If you’re happier or sadder after using a platform.
  • How often you’re using the platform, and if any free second you have defaults your behaviour to check in or refresh.
  • If you’re feeling anxious when you’re not using the platform and why.
  • If it’s sparking joy. Just kidding, but be aware of what benefits, if any, you’re getting from the platform.
  • How you can use the platform as a tool for what you need, and not let it use you simply as a data-product to line its coffers.

These platforms like Facebook, with their “Like” buttons could easily save the world by connecting us all and showing us how similar we all are. Or, they could ruin democracy and everything good that exists, and turn us all into compulsive labourers of their technology, mindlessly feeding personal data to the algorithms for access, pulling their slot machines again and again.

If we’re craving human interaction, maybe we should stop looking for it through likes and what the algorithm gives us. Maybe instead of constantly wanting to refresh or check in we can slow down and listen. Maybe instead of using every free minute or every bit of space in the day we can relish in the beauty of actual solitude. Maybe having regular and lengthy doses of giving ourselves the space to think could be crucial for resilience, introspection and even creative insight.

And, maybe, instead that line in my book should read:

It was a hackathon that led to the creation of Facebook’s “Like” button, which arguably gives us more anxiety than we need and drives detrimentally compulsive behaviour, exploiting our freedom.

It doesn’t flow as nicely in the overarching story, but it’s a lot more accurate.