On Tuesday evening we had a packed audience at the DaVinci Institute to discuss the future of micro farming. Admittedly, we weren’t terribly well organized and the range of topics we touched on were far more than most of us could reasonably consider in a single setting. But for those who took part in the discussion groups, some amazing ideas came to light.
Our primary goal was to build a community of interest, and judging from the responses afterwards, we have all the makings of a very vibrant community coming together.
The next step will be to push the envelope of thinking and begin creating visions of the future that will influence others around the world.
As part of our effort to help people think more creatively, I mentioned the idea of tree-jacking where we will someday be able to jack into trees and more directly influence their growth patterns. One example I gave was the rocking char tree.
“Wouldn’t it be cool if we could cause a tree to grow so all of the branched grew into perfectly shaped rocking chairs? So, come harvest time, we just climb up the tree and cut down all the rocking chairs?”
So how smart are plants? And, can we make them smarter?
Plants like the Venus Flytrap demonstrate a small amount of intelligence when they attract a fly into their sticky trap and close their mouth around it.
In a somewhat similar display of plant intelligence, Poison Ivy plants are able to sense danger through the proximity of a person or animal, and as a defense mechanism, the plant will shoot out a poisonous spay.
But are plants trainable? Can we implant shapes or design specs into a plant and have them grow into that shape?
As I mentioned above, will it be possible to “train” a tree to have its branches grow into the shape of end tables, coffee tables, chairs, or rocking chairs. So once the branches are fully grown, we can walk up to the tree and harvest the rocking chairs by cutting them down. This will be similar to harvesting apples or cherries.
If you think that sounds crazy, a Chinese man has already patented a technique for growing his own wooden chairs. In an article published in the China Morning Business View, the inventor, Mr. Wu, from Liaoning City, Shengyang province, moulds branches into shape while the tree is still growing.
He uses elm trees which are pliant and do not break easily. Mr. Wu, who’s in his 60s, says it takes him about five years to grow a tree chair, from saplings to the finished article. As the ‘chair’ grows, he constantly trims and guides it into shape before the chair is finally harvested.
It was reported that Mr. Wu has one tree chair in his home, which he harvested in September 2006, and six more growing in his field. He hopes that one day people will be able to grow all of their furniture instead of having to buy it from a store.
While still a confusing technology in its Neanderthal stages of development, it becomes an important piece of building the visions of what’s possible.
Will we someday be able to “grow” our own clothing, clothing that is intelligent, self-repairing, able to change colors to match our mood, and protective in extreme elements? Can this “grown” clothing be physically enhancing, capable of making us stronger, faster, able to stop bullets, but also capable of keeping our weight down and at the same time keeping out body trim and fit?
If these ideas seem a bit too extreme, rest assured they are only scratching the surface.
World’s Most Dangerous Animals
After doing some research, I’ve assembled a list of the top eight animals that pose the greatest threat to humankind. These numbers are global estimates of the human casualty count associated with each of these creatures.
- Mosquito – An estimated 2-3 million fatalities a year
- Venomous Snakes – An estimated 50,000-125,000 fatalities a year
- Deer – An estimated 2,000-4,000 fatalities a year.
- Scorpions – An estimated 800-2,000 fatalities a year.
- Big Cats (Lions, Tigers, Leopards, etc) – An estimated 800 fatalities a year.
- Crocodiles – An estimated 600-800 fatalities a year.
- Bees – An estimated 400-600 fatalities a year.
- Elephants – An estimated 300-500 fatalities a year.
For those of you who think in groups of 10, you can add hippos with estimated 100-150 fatalities a year and that most over-rated of evil sea creatures, the shark, with somewhere around 100 fatalities a year.
The reason I find this to be such an intriguing list is because of the animal in the number 3 slot, that vicious creature we’ve learned to love and hate, the deer.
On a recent trip to South Dakota my wife and I had the misfortune of colliding with a deer late one evening. While I had just enough time to stomp on my brakes and wear a flat side onto my tires, it wasn’t quite enough time to avoid the deer that appeared out of nowhere in the darkness. The deer apparently had no way of intellectually connecting the engine noise, screeching tires, and blazing headlights with the coming danger.
The U.S. Department of Transportation estimates that the white-tailed deer alone kills around 130 Americans each year simply by causing car accidents. In 1994, the “predator” deer had a banner year, causing 211 human deaths in car wrecks.
In the U.S. there are about 1.5 million deer/vehicle collisions annually, resulting in 29,000 human injuries and more than $1 billion in insurance claims in addition to the death toll. Approx 50% of all the accidents happen in Oct, Nov, and Dec during mating season.
Deer also carry the ticks that transmit Lyme disease to about 13,000 people each year. Economic damage to agriculture, timber, and landscaping by deer totals more than $1.2 billion a year.
Yes, one of the world’s most dangerous animals in the world is the lowly deer. This is one of those facts that if told to people living in the 1800’s, they would have found it quite amusing.
But it also points to the fact that, up until this point, deer are an animal that is not capable of learning. Evolutionary theory would lead us to believe that given the confrontational nature of deer and cars, that some amount of learning should have been passed down from one generation to the next.
Indeed there is empirical evidence of this being true with birds, where the number of dead birds found stuck in the grills of cars has dropped dramatically over the past few decades. But the same is not true for deer.
So the question becomes – are deer incapable of learning, or have we simply not found the proper systems or techniques for training them?
Speculating on this notion, if we were able to increase the intelligence of deer just slightly, then logically they would become aware of the dangers of running in front of cars. Nearly all other animal species have learned to avoid cars, so it seems reasonable that deer must simply be missing something.
In fact, if we push this line of thinking to the comical extreme and we increase deer intelligence a few steps beyond collision avoidance, the deer-crossing signs found many places along roads could be rotated 90 degrees and changed from “deer-crossing” signs to “car-crossing” signs for the deer to read.
Perhaps this comes across as little more than an amusing idea, but it brings us to a much larger topic to consider – animal intelligence.
Are animals capable of learning?
Many animals have special cognitive abilities that allow them to excel in their particular habitats, but they do not often solve novel problems. Some of course do, and we call them intelligent, but none are as quick-witted as humans.
In the 1970s, Herbert Terrace, a psychologist at Columbia University, trained a chimp named Nim Chimpsky to recognize 125 different sign language gestures and use these signs to communicate on an elementary level. Circus trained animals such as horses, elephants, and tigers have learned to respond to human voice commands. In fact most dogs are able to display a high degree of perception from being immersed in the communication of their owners.
But is it possible to raise this existing level of intelligence even further?
As an example, if we were able to raise the intelligence of a silk worm, could a silk worm be trained to automatically “weave a tie” or “create a shirt”?
To make this a more plausible, would it be possible to create a material frame that a silk worm could navigate around, effectively creating a shirt that could later be “harvested”, dyed, and packaged for sale?
Swallows are the pesky birds that create the dirty mud nests on the sides of buildings. With a little training, would it be possible to teach the swallows to work with cement instead of mud, and use cement to build foundations for buildings instead of their mud nests. Perhaps they could even be trained to build monuments or towers.
Think that sounds a little too farfetched? Well, here is another variable to consider.
The idea of growing a rock sounds equally far-fetched at first glance, but there are many instances of rocks and rock-like material being grown in nature.
One obvious example is crystals. The process of forming a crystalline structure is often referred to as crystallization. When heating liquids, the cooling process often results in the generation of crystalline material.
Crystalline structures occur in many classes of materials, with numerous types of chemical bonds. Almost all metal exists in a polycrystalline state; amorphous or single-crystal metals must be produced synthetically, often with great difficulty. Ionically bonded crystals can form upon solidification of salts, either from a molten fluid or when it condenses from a solution.
Covalently bonded crystals are also very common, with notable examples being diamond, silica, and graphite. Polymer materials generally will form crystalline regions, but the length of the molecules usually prevents complete crystallization. Weak Van der Waals forces can also play a role in a crystal structure; for example, this type of bonding loosely holds together the hexagonal-patterned sheets in graphite.
Another example of growing rock-like material is found in ocean coral.
Corals are marine animals that exist as small polyps, typically in colonies of many identical individuals. The coral group includes reef builders that are found in tropical oceans, which secrete calcium carbonate to form a hard skeleton.
A coral “head”, commonly perceived to be a single organism, is actually formed of thousands of individual but genetically identical polyps, each polyp is only a few millimeters in diameter. Over thousands of generations, the polyps lay down a skeleton that is characteristic of their species. A head of coral grows by asexual reproduction of the individual polyps.
Using what may be considered a more abstract view of nature, some view the earth itself as capable of “growing” its own rocks and mountains. When volcanoes spew forth their rivers of molten lava, we are able to witness the creation of new rocks. The key question is not “can it be controlled?” but rather “when will we be able to control it?”
Where do we go from here?
Placing boundaries around our thinking can have both positive and negative effects. On one hand, a boundary can keep us focused and more productive. At the same time, it will prevent us from seeing the logical next step.
While it’s easy for me to blur the lines between plants and animals and between organic and inorganic material, it may not be terribly useful to go down that path.
As the micro agronomy group meets over the coming months, we will begin to settle in on common visions and common goals.
It will be a fascinating process to watch, and I feel quite honored to be part of it.
Author of “Communicating with the Future” – the book that changes everything