This Way Up for Saturday 31 March 2018

Farms without farmers? Sensing slips: better landslide detection. Adventures in Intelligence: testing smart pills and brain hacks, and reflecting on mortality with the WeCroak app.

The farmer-less farms of the future

For the first time ever, a UK design team have grown and harvested a crop without a single human being setting foot in the field.

The Hands Free Hectare project uses drones, driverless tractors and retrofitted combine harvesters instead of human operators.

A crop of barley has already been harvested and now a second crop of winter wheat is in the ground.

Jonathan Gill is a robotics engineer at Harper Adams University and he's part of the Hands Free Hectare team.

"We believe the best solution is that in the future, farmers will manage fleets of smaller, autonomous vehicles. These will be able to go out and work in the fields, allowing the farmer to use their time more effectively and economically instead of having to drive up and down the fields"- Jonathan Gill.

Sensing slips: a Kiwi innovation in landslide detection

Abbotsford Disaster, Dunedin, 1979

Abbotsford Disaster, Dunedin, 1979 Photo: (Archives New Zealand CC BY 2.0)

About 66 million people – or about one percent of the world's population – currently work or live in places where there is a high risk of a landslide.

But knowing where and when a landslide will occur is currently more of an art than a science.

Now a team at Victoria University of Wellington hopes that a network of cheap GPS sensors could help us make accurate slip predictions at a fraction of the cost of a surveyor taking regular measurements with their instruments.

Nick Willis, Viclink's Commercialisation Manager, Engineering, shows us the system in operation near Wellington.

Can a pill make you more intelligent?

Best-selling author David Adam experimented with 'smart pills', brain zappers and memory-enhancing music for his new book about the cognitive enhancement industry The Genius Within. 


Photo: (Photo by Stefan Cosma on Unsplash)

David Adam

David Adam Photo: (Supplied)

The former science journalist and editor of Nature got interested in cognitive enhancement after he was offered electrical brain stimulation as a potential therapy for obsessive-compulsive disorder, after writing his last book The Man Who Couldn't Stop

From IQ tests to the 'study pill' Modafinil (sold under the brand name Provigil) and the eugenics movement, Adam weighs up a range of approaches to measuring and building intelligence in The Genius Within.

"The use of smart drugs is common. Some surveys suggest that as many as a quarter of UK undergraduates have taken modafinil or a similar medicine to help their work. A fifth of surgeons say they have taken it, and a similar number of professional scientists" - David Adam in The Guardian

WeCroak: the app that reminds you that you'll die

Would daily reminders of death change the way you live?

There is a tradition in many cultures, religions and philosophies of death contemplation: reflecting on the inevitability of death and our own mortality as a means of improving life in the present.

For example, there are the 'memento mori' in Christian art (Latin for "remember death" or "remember that you will die"); images of death or decay lurking around the margins of an otherwise happy scene or a still life. 

WeCroak is an app that brings these traditions into the digital age.

For a one-off fee, you get a lifetime of mortality-themed quotations and comments delivered at random intervals five times a day, or in the words of WeCroak "at any moment, just like death".

For example, 'You could leave life right now. Let that determine what you do and say and think' (Marcus Aurelius) or 'Every moment of life is the last, every poem is a death poem' (Matsuo Basho). 

Hansa Bergwall of WeCroak tells us how he came up with the idea for the app, and what it is doing for its tens of thousands of subscribers in over a hundred countries.

"We find that a regular practice of contemplating mortality helps spur needed change, accept what we must, let go of things that don’t matter and honor things that do" - WeCroak website.