Friday, August 31, 2012

A Contact Lens for Cows?

Dr. Babak Amir Parviz, at the University of
Washington, is hard at work developing a
a 'bionic contact lens' for humans;
He believes a simplified cow-version could
marketable for under $1 per cow before 2030 
From the You Heard it Here First department - let me present an idea that sounds patently ridiculous and yet - according to my discussions with the leading researcher in the field - is entirely possible within 20 years - a possibility that I argue - is indeed a probability.

Introducing - a contact lens for cows! Not just any contact lens - but ones infused with augmented reality capacities that guide the herd across pastoral landscapes with an ease and precision unimaginable today. What? How? Why? - So many questions may arise from this claim - I'll deal with the first two as succinctly as possible before getting to the far more interesting third inquiry - Why on earth might we want to do this?

Much has been made about the Google Glasses to be released - at least for testing purposes - later this year. The glasses have a tiny screen embedded in them to connect the user and his/her environment to google (and vice versa). A tiny camera in the bridge of the glasses allows the users visual world to literally be "searched" - buying tickets for a concert simply by looking at a poster and verbally asking your google glasses is but one example purported by google. On the team of developers for this project is Dr. Babak Amir Parviz, a nano-materials specialist with vision far beyond glasses - he seeks to integrate a google-enhanced reality directly into contact lenses. Parviz is years if not decades away from getting high-resolution, Internet enabled visuals seamlessly integrated onto a human's contact lens - but he's not that far away. Already proto-types exist for getting very simple visual cues onto such lenses.
The prototype for Google-Glasses

Simple visual cues are really all we need for cows! Numerous researchers around the world are engaged in projects seeking to develop 'virtual fencing' - the ability to control where cows graze without the energy intensive use of fencing. To date- these projects use a range of audio and vibratory cues to train the animals - and while there has been some success - it is far from effectively controlling the grazing patterns at a scale and precision optimum for truly ecological cattle production.

It's been estimated that, given consistent exponential growth in the price-performance of information technologies, augmented reality contact lenses could achieve "throw away" economic levels. That is to say - in my conversations with Dr. Parviz - he estimates it is entirely possible to achieve a 'virtual grazing' contact lens for cows that costs just $1 per cow within 20 years. When this occurs - the ability to produce grass-fed beef through the latest in holistic grazing management - will, in fact, be the easiest and lowest cost option.

The application is simple. The contact lens' will be placed in bovine eyes during routine handling sessions. Tiny GPS units in a cow's collar will simply blur the landscape as a cow leaves the current delineated grazing area.  Using simple iPad or Android tablet apps; integrated with Google Earth - cattle and farmers will work in fluid synchronicity, balancing the needs of the land with the interests of the cows. Farmers will be more profitable, land will be healthier, cows will have more freedom, bountiful and better grass; that is - for those who choose to adopt such an emerging technology.

Doubtlessly there will be many who will get hung up on my third question posed Why would we want this? This dissent is doubtless a good thing; debate and discourse on new technologies should be both omni-present and vigorous in nature. There certainly could be unintended consequences from this (and every) technological advancement. Though in this case - I do believe such consequences could all be managed fairly easily. What concerns me more than unintended consequences is the reasons I predict many will reject this highly probable future of farming option before it even reaches the field.

Farms of the future will use advanced information technology,
rather than steel and diesel fuel, to guide the movements of
cow herds across time & space in an optimum balance
for cattle, soils, farmers, and consumers.
Cows truly are sacred in so many contexts and ways - it makes them a subject rife with moral judgements; from if they should be eaten, to how they should be born, raised, and die. There is no area of bovinity out of the scopes for modern food ethicists. Some will inevitably claim we are degrading the purity of the animal with such technology; that the farm itself is somehow cheapened by this particular step towards precision grazing. I remain open to the possibility that these claims could bear fruit - that this technology could introduce it's own set of animal welfare, environmental, and human health concerns itself. I argue only that we should think through these possibilities with high levels of scrutiny - and not let real agro-ecological progress be missed by knee-jerk reactions to 'high tech solutions'.

Indeed - holistic grazing uses cows instead of tractors to manage vast landscapes. Farmers of the future may well view steel & diesel as high-technology; and nano-scale computation as appropriate-technology. To me the idea of a contact-lens for cows is emblematic of the nuanced challenges technology will thrust ever more upon our moral reasoning - let's try to understand it's full ramifications and adopt or reject it based on evidence over emotion.

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