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Monarch’s autonomous tractor aims to transform farming

Diane Davis

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A tractor moves slowly down a long field between rows of grape vines, spraying a fine mist of water on the plants. The space is tight but even though there’s no driver behind the wheel the machine stays perfectly between the rows. Its electric motor is barely audible. Cameras and sensors watch each plant, looking for signs of ill health or pest damage.

This is the flagship product of Livermore, California-based Monarch Tractor, in operation at one of a small group of farms now testing it. Monarch is the first electric tractor company making a serious play for the tractor market, which is currently dominated by fossil fuel-burning (and noisy) diesel tractors. The tractor is still being tested and the company hasn’t yet announced when it will be widely available. The base model will sell for a reasonable $58,000.

Monarch’s founders saw a conversion to electric and autonomous farm equipment coming five years ago, driven by the labor shortages in the agriculture industry, as well as increasing pressure on farmers to reduce their environmental footprint.

The Monarch Tractor, which looks something like a cross between a big John Deere tractor and a riding lawn mower, can, with some supervision, operate itself in the field. It uses GPS and a system of cameras that see in all directions. “The cameras . . .make sure it goes down the row accurately and is doing that exact [right] operation, which is either spraying or mowing or hauling,” Monarch Tractor cofounder and CEO Praveen Penmetsa tells me. Computer vision models running on hardware built into the tractor’s roof can recognize signs like leaf discoloration or insect damage, and report them to the farmer. The farmer can monitor up to eight tractors, perhaps from a pickup truck or a home office.

[Photo: courtesy of Monarch]

This may be the look of farming in the future. Traditional farming practices are hard on the environment; diesel tractors, for example, generate 17 times the carbon dioxide of the average car. As a whole, the agriculture industry contributes about 10% of the U.S.’s total greenhouse gas emissions; that’s fully a third the amount contributed by cars, planes, and trains.

Monarch’s tractor is small, and not designed for use by the major contributors of harmful emissions—the large farms that grow cash crops like corn, wheat, and soybeans. Monarch’s machine tops out at 70 horsepower, while cash crop farms use diesel tractors with 400 horsepower and more. The Monarch tractor’s range is limited as well. It can work for around 10 hours on one battery charge, and charging takes between four to five hours.

Instead, Monarch is targeting a smaller section of the industry–specialty farms that grow fruit and vegetables. And for that kind of farm, the tractor addresses several major pain points, including labor shortages. Farm work is seasonal and can require more laborers around busy times like the harvest, and less at other times. Farms in California are willing to pay between $23 and $30 an hour for tractor drivers, Penmetsa says, but they often have trouble filling the positions.

“It’s a very dull, dirty, dangerous job as well, which is why they migrate from being a tractor driver on farms to construction [jobs] and warehouse work,” Penmetsa says. Farms usually must train new hires for a few weeks before letting them on the tractor, so if an employee leaves, the farm has lost a considerable investment.

Data on demand

Monarch can also help with another issue farmers are facing: the farms’ customers—grocery stores and food distributors—want farmers to collect data about every step of the growth process, from planting to harvesting and storage. That’s because these buyers want to be able to prove to their customers—the consumers who eat the food—that the produce was grown in healthy and environmentally conscious ways.

Farmers are adapting to this more data-driven way of farming, but it forces them to invest valuable time doing paperwork. Penmetsa says the Monarch tractor, with its array of sensors and cameras, is constantly collecting data on farm work, which can shared with the food buyer.

[Photo: courtesy of Monarch]

“If we can allow the farmer to tell their story to the end consumer in a digital fashion, then the farmer benefits by being able to get more [business], and all of us benefit because we now know where our food came from and what went into it.”

Penmetsa says consumers’ demand for chemical-free farming can actually work against environmental concerns.

“Going from chemical farming to more mechanical farming has resulted in . . . additional emissions because you run the tractor more, [so] you’re now putting more emissions into the air,” he says. The farmer might, for example, use the tractor to uproot weeds, where an herbicide had done the job before. But if that tractor is electric, the environmental impact could be much less.

Naturally, a California agtech introducing electric power and AI into a huge and slow-to-move agriculture industry is a bit of a David-and-Goliath story. Monarch’s best chance of getting its technology into the fields of mainstream cash crop farmers might be through partnerships with big tractor makers such as New Holland and Deere. To whit, Monarch has just signed a deal with one farm equipment company, CNH Industrial, which plans to license Monarch’s electric and autonomous technology for inclusion in future low-horsepower tractors of its own.

Long before Monarch sees big profits, it will have to win a battle of hearts and minds among farmers and the equipment makers that supply them. Penmetsa believes his company has already made inroads there.

“What we have already done is changed people’s minds in the whole industry over the past year since we came out of stealth,” Penmetsa tells me. “We have been talking to a lot of tractor companies and now they’ve all realized that this is possible.”


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Google DeepMind’s new generative model makes Super Mario-like games from scratch

Diane Davis

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example of game generated from a crayon sketch

“It’s cool work,” says Matthew Gudzial, an AI researcher at the University of Alberta, who developed a similar game generator a few years ago. 

Genie was trained on 30,000 hours of video of hundreds of 2D platform games taken from the internet. Others have taken that approach before, says Gudzial. His own game generator learned from videos to create abstract platformers. Nivida used video data to train a model called GameGAN, which could produce clones of games like Pac-Man.

But all of these examples trained the model with input actions, button presses on a games controller, as well as video footage: a video frame showing Mario jumping was paired with the “jump” action, and so on. Tagging video footage with input actions takes a lot of work, however. This has limited the amount of training data available. 

In contrast, Genie was trained on video footage alone. It then learned which of eight possible actions would cause the game character in a video to change its position. This turned countless hours of existing online video into potential training data. 

Genie can generate simple games from hand-drawn sketches

GOOGLE DEEPMIND

Genie generates each new frame of the game on the fly depending on the action the player takes. Press jump and Genie updates the current image to show the game character jumping; press left and the image changes to show the character moved to the left. The game ticks along action by action, each new frame generated from scratch as the player plays. 

Future versions of Genie could run faster. “There is no fundamental limitation that prevents us from reaching 30 frames per second,” says Tim Rocktäschel, a research scientist at Google DeepMind who leads the team behind the work. “Genie uses many of the same technologies as contemporary large language models, where there has been significant progress in improving inference speed.” 

Genie learned some common visual quirks found in platformers. Many games of this type use parallax, where the foreground moves sideways faster than the background. Genie often adds this effect to the games it generates.  

While Genie is an in-house research project and won’t be released, Gudzial notes that the Google DeepMind team says it could one day be turned into a game-making tool—something he’s working on too. “I’m definitely interested to see what they build,” he says.

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Tackling long-haul diseases | MIT Technology Review

Diane Davis

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Tal, who has been obsessed with infectious disease since losing an uncle to HIV/AIDS and a cousin to meningococcal meningitis, wondered what this striking diversity could reveal about our immune response to infection. According to one hypothesis, the wide array of these receptors is the result of an evolutionary arms race between disease-causing microbes and the immune system. Think of the receptor as a lock, and the “Nothing to see here” message as a key. Pathogens might evolve to produce their own chemical mimics of this key, effectively hiding from the immune system in plain sight. In response, the human population has developed a wide range of locks to frustrate any given impostor key. 

Wanting to test this hypothesis, Tal found herself walking the halls of Stanford, asking colleagues, “Who’s got a cool bug?” Someone gave her Borrelia burgdorferi, the bacterium that causes Lyme disease. Previous research from Tal’s collaborator Jenifer Coburn, a microbiologist now at the Medical College of Wisconsin, had established that Lyme bacteria sport a special protein crucial for establishing a lasting infection. Knock this protein out, and the immune system swiftly overwhelms the bugs. The big question, however, was what made this protein so essential. So Tal used what’s known as a high-affinity probe as bait—and caught the Borrelia’s mimic of our “Don’t eat me” signal binding to it. In other words, she confirmed that the bacteria’s sneakyprotein was, as predicted, a close match for a healthy cell’s signal.  

Sex differences in Lyme infection

Until then, Tal says, she had never given Lyme disease much thought. But the more she learned, the more disturbed she grew. Even after timely antibiotic treatment, roughly 10% of all Lyme patients go on to develop chronic symptoms that can include crushing pain, debilitating fatigue, and cognitive changes that make basic tasks a struggle.  

This confocal micrograph depicts Borrelia burgdorferi bacteria, which cause Lyme disease when transmitted to humans by ticks. These Borrelia were genetically engineered to produce a green fluorescent protein.

COURTESY OF THE TAL RESEARCH GROUP

Perhaps even more alarming than the disease has been the medical community’s response to it. “I realized that there’s this public health debacle around Lyme, and it’s, for lack of a better word, obscene,” Tal says. Chronic Lyme patients skew female, and for decades, clinicians have dismissed their symptoms as signs of mental illness. The medical establishment has “done nothing but call them crazy,” Tal says, “instead of admitting that they just don’t understand what’s going on.” 

Today, there is no objective way to diagnose chronic Lyme, and no medically accepted therapy. For some patients, lengthy treatments with high doses of antibiotics can ease symptoms, but these come with their own serious risks. (They can, for example, damage the microbiome, leading to significant negative effects on health.) And because the antibiotic used currently only prevents bacteria from replicating, Tal notes, it’s up to the immune system to actually kill off the invaders. If immune cells can’t tell friend from foe, the utility of antibiotics may be limited. 

Chronic Lyme patients skew female, and for decades, the medical establishment has “done nothing but call them crazy,” Tal says, “instead of admitting that they just don’t understand what’s going on.”

For Tal, these revelations were electrifying. She dove into the immunology of Lyme disease, focusing in particular on sex differences. In one mouse experiment, she discovered that Lyme bacteria “completely disfigured” the uterus. Yet after delving through decades of Lyme research, she could find only one other study that even documented uterine infection. 

This shortfall mirrors larger problems in medical research. “We’ve let men dictate the direction of research funding for so long,” Tal says. Traditionally, studies focused on male subjects, and a 1977 FDA policy barred women from participating in most clinical trials in the US in the wake of birth defects caused by thalidomide. It wasn’t until 1993 that federal law required studies to include women and minorities. This, coupled with other sex- and gender-based medical biases, means that many female-dominated diseases remain under-researched. “So much of this research is being done on males, male mice—male, male, male,” Tal says. “And I’m like, no.” 

Tal suspects that the sex disparities seen in chronic Lyme and other pathogen-­triggered chronic diseases might come down to the fact that men mount a more robust response to acute infection. This no-holds-barred approach is risky—“Your immune system has the power to kill you,” she notes—but it may mean that men, on average, can kill off more viruses or bacteria in the critical first week of infection. After that window closes, the immune system largely settles back down, Tal says. Pathogens that escaped the initial blitz could take up long-term residence in the body, potentially causing persistent symptoms. And women have a higher chance of chronic illness.

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We are beavers all | MIT Technology Review

Diane Davis

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old black and white photo of William Miller in a canoe

As efficient creators and stewards of wetlands, beavers provide a hospitable ecosystem for dozens of other creatures, from insects, frogs, and turtles to owls, otters, great blue herons, and even moose and deer. What’s more, by harvesting undergrowth for their dams and creating ponds and bogs that raise the moisture content of the soil, beavers lessen the likelihood that forest fires will spread. As forest fires devastated Oregon in 2021, beaver wetlands remained green and lush, acting as natural firebreaks. On aerial images of the charred landscape, the beaver’s habitat stands out, a wide and verdant ribbon running through the blackened trees.

While not all property owners who live near beaver habitats appreciate the animals’ tree removal services, the pro-­beaver movement seems to be getting more organized. In November 2023, some 300 beaver restoration advocates from North America and Europe gathered in the Beaver State (Oregon) for the annual State of the Beaver conference. “Seventy-five percent of the artificial wetland restoration projects done in America over the past 30 years have failed,” conference cofounder Stanley Petrowski told the Daily Yonder. “But when beavers do it, they do it perfectly.” 

BeaverCon, held near Baltimore in June of 2022, and the Midwest Beaver Summit, held in Chicago and online in September 2023, attracted similar crowds of humans interested in promoting beaver welfare.

It is, in fact, possible to find ways to allow beavers to continue creating their watery habitats in ways that minimize damage to human infrastructure. For example, devices such as the Beaver Deceiver can be installed to prevent beavers from damming culverts, which often leads to flooding of roads. Skip Lisle, founder of Beaver Deceivers International of Grafton, Vermont, first developed the device in the 1990s to beaver-proof the Penobscot Nation’s 130 miles of roads in Maine. “In all likelihood, they are the first large landowner to completely beaver-proof their property nonlethally,” he says.

Living organic chemical factory

At the base of their tail, all beavers have two castor sacs that store castoreum, a complex, granular substance with a strong and long-lasting musky smell. It is made up of at least 24 different compounds, primarily derived from the barks of the various trees in the beaver’s diet. Beavers deposit castoreum atop foot-high mounds of mud, sticks, and grass to mark the edges of their territory. 

Humans have long valued castoreum. About 400 BCE, Hippocrates, a chronicler of natural cures, wrote of its wonderful medical properties. Around 77 CE, the Roman naturalist Pliny listed castoreum as a cure for headaches, constipation, and epilepsy. In the Middle Ages the list of maladies castoreum was said to cure expanded to include dysentery, worms, fleas, pleurisy, gout, rheumatism, insomnia, hysteria, memory loss, and liver problems. 

Author William Miller ’51, SM ’52, reports that his foot once crashed through a beaver dam while he was dragging his canoe over it to get to the next lake in Jasper National Park in Alberta, Canada. About 100 feet away, a watching beaver immediately began to slap its tail on the pond surface. Having just unleashed a string of curses directed at the beavers, Bill assumed that the beaver was cursing at him. But he now suspects it was sending a warning signal to the other beavers—or possibly urging them to come quickly to repair the damage caused by the trespassing human oaf.

COURTESY OF WILLIAM MILLER

As it turns out, quite a few of the tree barks that beavers prefer contain compounds with known medicinal benefits. Phenols, for example, are often anti-­inflammatory and antiseptic and can have antiviral properties. They include salicylic acid (a precursor to aspirin), which can be found in the bark of willow, poplar, and alder trees—all beaver favorites. The beaver’s system functions as a natural pharmacy, extracting these compounds (among others) and secreting them in the form of castoreum. 

Humans have also used castoreum for several nonmedical applications, such as in high-end “leather note” perfumes including Shalimar, Givenchy III, and Chanel’s Antaeus. It is an ingredient in some bourbons and vodkas and has been used in Sweden to flavor “Bäverhojt” (literally, beaver shout) schnapps.

Today, most castoreum is harvested in a sterile environment by anesthetizing beavers and expressing the castor sacs near their tails. As a food additive, castoreum extract is “generally recognized as safe,” according to the FDA. But at close to $100 per pound, it’s used sparingly. The total annual US consumption of dried castoreum is around 300 pounds.

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