Did you have a Tamagotchi when you were a kid? The Japanese solution to having and accidentally killing a real pet animal was to stick a pixelated one on a plastic key ring, so that you could find out just how inept you were at caring for anything before you attempted it in real life.
Or perhaps you were a child of the Farmville generation, waking up in the middle of the night to harvest potatoes, while watching your virtual neighbor's duck wander across your land. Maybe the experience made you think you could never grow any real life crops successfully.
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Well, think again. California-based social entrepreneur Rory Aronson has developed technology that allows even the most neglectful Tamagotchi owners and intermittent waterers to plant and harvest real-life crops.
"Growing food is manual labor that requires specialized knowledge, tools, a lot of time, and a lot of diligence," he tells me over Skype from San Luis Obispo, CA. "When you're busy, it all gets neglected and everything dies. So you end up at the grocery store. That was my experience, anyway."
It was this that inspired Aronson to create a bot that could take part of hard part of farming for you. He took an outside course in organic agriculture during his time as a mechanical engineering student three years ago, and set about to combine agriculture with technology.
"A local farmer showed us his tractor, which used a camera to look at the soil, detect the plants, and remove the weeds," he says. "I was like, 'Wow, that's amazing,' and went to the hardware to see if I could find something similar for someone like me, a wannabe small-scale producer. There was nothing more sophisticated than a shovel."
So, instead of resigning himself to wilted tomatoes or a back-breaking commitment to digging, Aronson set about designing a bot that would use the camera technology of the farmer's tractor to plant seeds, water and feed them, weed around them, and send an alert when the crop is ready for harvest.
"I open-sourced the idea," he says. "I published a 50-page document that described the hardware, software, and data we'd need and how it would all interact, and said, 'This is my idea. It's called Farmbot. Who wants to help me build it?'"
The idea went viral, people contacted Aronson, and he crowdsourced a small team who have worked together over the last three years to bring Farmbot into being. The first version, Farmbot Genesis, is ready to go and people will be able to use it from February next year.
While Aronson's team build the basic version of Farmbot, he emphasizes that all the information is out there for people to customize the technology themselves.
"It's designed for soil-based growing, but we anticipate that people will modify it for hydroponics or aquaponics," he says. "At the moment, it can only plant seeds, so you can't plant potato spuds or bulbs for onions with it, and the gantry isn't high enough to go over the top of crops like sunflowers or corn. While the first kit has limitations, the concept doesn't, so there's no reason why you shouldn't build a Farmbot that's taller and wider and optimize for corn or potatoes."
Making technology that was open and shareable is an important value to the team.
"Farmbot is a technology that can help solve the problem of food security. It's right to share it," explains Aronson. "When it comes to basic human needs like food, water, and shelter, if I have food and you don't, or I have a technology that allows me to produce food and you don't, the only moral thing to do is to share that food or technology with you."
The idea of Farmbot being shared around the world only excites Aronson. As do the possibilities for syncing Farmbots with AI technology.
"The beauty of keeping it open-source is that we're fostering a community that's not only sharing hardware ideas and software code, but also data," he says. "So if you figure out a great way to grow your squash in certain conditions, you can share your 'growing guide,' so that your next door neighbor or someone with similar growing conditions to you, can do the same."
Aronson's dream is of a giant library of information on how to grow the best vegetables, available for everyone to use. Say farewell to the prizewinning marrow at the summer fete, then.
"That would be awesome," he agrees. "It would be so cool when a Farmbot wins a state fair and they bring a robot up to accept the prize."
It's not just that Farmbot helps you to grow your own food, the idea is that it will help you grow it successfully. The time where you might have peered over your neighbor's allotment with envious eyes at their super abundant crops when you struggle to coerce even one courgette out of a plant could be at an end. Farmbot is a way of democratizing food production, so that everyone can do it.
"Our vision is that Farmbot gets smarter over time, so that you can eventually say, 'I want tomatoes and squash in this quantity' and it will do the rest."
Aronson wants people to use Farmbots like we use washing machines, where every garden has one, or you can access a larger shared one for your block and harvest some vegetables in the same way as you might take your washing to the laundromat.
"You press a few buttons, turn a few knobs, maybe pour in some seeds, and the Farmbot will do everything else."
In the future, Aronson hopes that Farmbot will link to an app, enabling it to send notifications to your phone when crops are ready for harvest, as well as a daily digest of what's ripe to eat in your garden. You could share this information with your WhatsApp group, or link it to another recipe app which would tell you what to cook for dinner using the ingredients.
To crown it all, for the former Farmville player, Farmbot's interface will seem remarkably familiar.
"It's inspired by Farmville. Instead of virtually growing your garden for virtual coins, you drag and drop plants into the map which represents your real-life garden," says Aronson. "If you were excited to play the game, you'll be even more excited when you get a tangible and edible reward."
And unlike my poor Tamagotchi, Farmbot won't let your garden die, meaning in a few years time, all of us, even the ditziest, most disorganized, non-green fingered, could be eating home-grown food without having to lift a shovel. That's a future I can get on board with.
Every day this week, MUNCHIES is exploring the future of food on planet Earth, from lab-grown meat and biohacking to GMOs and the precarious state of our oceans. Find out more here.