[EAS] Herding Cattle

pjk pjk at design.eng.yale.edu
Thu Oct 7 04:12:28 EDT 2004

Subject:   Herding Cattle

(from INNOVATION, 29 September 2004)

      A team of researchers at Dartmouth College is developing
technology that could enable cowboys to hang up their spurs and
join a growing number of telecommuters -- herding their cattle from
the comfort of their homes.  Using techniques from robot-motion
planning, the team is developing  software that transmits certain
GPS coordinates to collars that the cows  wear. "Basically, we
download the fences to the cows," says Dartmouth  roboticist Zack
Butler. The collars, which are equipped with a Wi-Fi networking
card, a Zaurus PDA, an eTrex GPS unit and a loudspeaker, emit 
natural sounds when the cows are moseying in the right direction.
When they stray, however, the collars project sounds such as
hissing snakes, roaring tigers and barking dogs, which usually
convince the wayward cattle to head  back the other way. Preliminary
testing on a Vermont farm shows that the  technology works, but the
negative stimulus merely slows the cows rather than deterring them
completely. "It's not quite ready for prime-time," says Butler.
The team is considering augmenting the threatening sounds with  a
small electrical shock and are also considering adding sensors to
the  collars that could monitor the cows' health and radio that data
back to the  central server. Meanwhile, the concept could be
expanded to other purposes,  says MIT's Daniela Rus. "We could use
this to control crowds, protect wild  animals from dangerous areas
such as busy roads, and study and model  animals that exhibit
complex societal behaviors that are currently  undocumented."
(Pervasive Computing Jul-Sep 2004)

Dear Colleagues -

It will hardly surprise you that this not only strikes me as another
superfluous exercise in virtual reality, but also something of a
metaphor for very troubling herd instincts in the human realm.
Public officials can allege, even lie, and the only response by
their audience, if there is a response at all, is based on instinct
or faith, not on reasoning from evidence. What are minds for? And
I'm not talking deep thinking here about epistemology and cause and
effect, just something on the level of a good high-school History
paper, or college Journalism 101.

Even the usually over-the-top columnist Mark Morford was positively
'somber' in yesterday's piece "Why Don't Americans Care?"


Then yesterday I also read an article in The New Yorker
<http://www.newyorker.com/critics/atlarge/?041011crat_atlarge> about
eighteenth-century Edinburgh - a century that started as a
near-theocracy where an eighteen-year-old student was found guilty
of atheism, and hanged, for believing that moral laws are the work
of governments and men, and became the century of the Scottish
Enlightenment, of David Hume, Adam Smith and others. James Buchan
sums up their influence in his recent book about the period "Crowded
with Genius":

"In demanding that experiment not inherited truth define the
business of living, the Edinburgh philosophers stamped the West with
its modern scientific and provisional character. They created a
world that tended towards the egalitarian and, within reason, the
democratic. Their prestige in English-speaking lands was carried on
the wave of British and American expansion into every corner of the

Think about our present situation, and weep. Or at least wince.


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