Should We Fear the Rise of Farm Robots? These Experts Say No

 

More than 60,000 factory workers in China were replaced by robots in 2016 by Apple and Samsung supplier Foxconn. Since their launch in 2000, two million medical procedures have been performed by robotic surgical company Da Vinci’s bots. In Japan, robots are taking over secretarial jobs and serving as greeters and hotel receptionists. See a pattern yet?

Robots are becoming an integral part of many industries. Manufacturing, health and hotel industries alike are seeing mechanical workers enter their sphere. Now, these AI machines are even changing the food scene.

CaliBurger in Pasadena, California has switched from human fast-food employees to an AI-driven kitchen assistant that flips burgers and sets them nicely cooked and ready to eat on their buns. They call the little guy Flippy and it’s developed by the robotics company Miso Robotics.

“The robot is currently being ‘trained’to begin making burgers for the public in the near future. Flippy uses machine vision and machine learning to work the grill, in the same way that a human works the grill,” said John Miller, Chairman and CEO of Cali Group, which owns CaliBurger.

CaliBurger is continuing on their AI journey with even more additions.

“We are also getting ready to launch a facial recognition system on our self-ordering kiosks so that the kiosks will recognize guests in our loyalty program as they walk up to the kiosks and automatically pull up their loyalty accounts. We are also using machine vision and AI to detect for operating errors in the dining area and to automate inventory tracking,” Miller said.

Then there’s the PancakeBot, which is essentially a motorized batter dispenser that draws out detailed designs on top of a griddle. This breakfast revolutionizer was debuted in Northern California in 2014. And, in Mountain View, California a startup is working to alter the way we eat pizza with a pie-making machine. The future is upon us.

The Rise of Robotics in Agriculture

Outside of the ways our meals are being prepared, robots are taking things a step further. Now, from the way it’s planted to how it’s harvested, AI is changing the way our food is produced. Robotics is a rapidly expanding field. In fact, according to market research done by Technavio, the AI market in the agriculture industry is expected to grow at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 23% from now until 2021.

Don’t believe it? Well consider this: Already, berry company Driscoll’s, is using a robotic strawberry picker to enhance their picking powers. In farms near San Francisco, a robot that rolls through fields cuts off heads of lettuce with something called a water knife. An apple picker has been developed by Abundant Robotics in California that uses a vacuum system to suck those Granny Smith and Red Delicious apples straight off the trees.

All of these inventions are impressive advances in technology that should be applauded. But with innovation comes responsibility. With the expanded use of such machinery, many people are beginning to panic over what these robots could mean for the workforce. Oxford University researchers have estimated that 47 percent of U.S. jobs could be automated within the next two decades.  Humans must learn, change, or seek other work. Not what a lot of people want to hear.

As robots advance and develop the ability to perform jobs better than humans can, it’s only inevitable that us non-robotic workers will be replaced. The ways in which AI will affect one specific group of workers – the farmers of our nation- is perhaps where this fear is most justifiable. But it has been going on for a long time.

According to Forbes, in 1810, agriculture employed 84 percent of the workforce and 27 percent of the U.S. population. Today, just one percent of the workforce is in agriculture.

This ginormous loss of jobs can be attributed to machinery. Such machines have made it possible for only one percent of the country’s workforce to grow enough food to feed America and have one-quarter of their production left over to export food to the outside world. The loss of jobs in agriculture is clear.

John C. Havens, Executive Director of The IEEE Global AI Ethics Initiative and author of Heartificial Intelligence: Embracing Humanity to Maximize Machines says that worrying over job loss, especially in agriculture, is valid for many reasons. Consider this: During the Industrial Revolution, the horse was replaced by trains and automobiles -similar to what will be happening when AI brains outsmart human ones. So far there’s no legislation stopping AI or robotic manufacturers from creating their products in any industry.

“It makes no empirical sense to say, ‘there will be just as many jobs created as taken away by AI’ because we want it to be true,” Havens said. On top of that, Havens feels these industries that are already being affected by AI actually have no choice but to embrace the change.

“The exponential growth mentality means organizations must increase their productivity and exponential growth. It’s not enough to be profitable in the GDP or IPO model – you have to double or triple growth on a regular basis. That’s not sustainable with humans, period. It is inaccurate to think it will be and we should stop kidding ourselves that organizations will a) replace humans with machines that can increase productivity and growth exponentially, yet b) still employ humans in “the jobs machines can never do.” This line of thinking is either utter naive ignorance or rhetoric hiding an agenda. It has to stop,” Havens said. (These are Havens’ views and don’t necessarily reflect the views of IEEE.)

In short, human farm workers will soon start seeing more and more robots coming in and taking their jobs. In fact, the number of industrial robots deployed worldwide will increase to around 2.6 million units by 2019. That’s about one million units more than in the record-breaking year of 2015.

AI expert Adam Coates says people must adapt to these advances if they hope to survive in the workforce.

“People will need to change and learn new skills. On the other hand, we have endured other massive shifts like the rise of the internet. On balance, I think the current generation of AI technologies will improve the world dramatically. We also need to recognize that it takes time for humans to learn new skills and find new roles, so it is critical to provide a safety net for everyone,” Coates said.

The question, though, is not whether humans can keep up with this new wave of industrialization, as it’s happening with or without them. So, let’s instead look at why these robotics are growing so fast anyway. There are many reasons that can answer why AI is expanding and some of them may even calm those who are worried about job loss. For big, corporate farms in specific, robotics can offer more benefits than negatives.

Robotics and Big Farms

Necessity
Wages for crop production have climbed 13% from 2010 to 2015, according to a Los Angeles Times analysis of Labor Department data. Combine this rise with the fact that the number of Mexican immigrants arriving to work on farm labor jobs is shrinking by about 150,000 people every year and a need for these robots has been established.

The Los Angeles Times explains that the decline of immigrant farm workers is because these workers in California’s agricultural heartlands “are getting older and not being replaced… After decades of crackdowns, the net flow across the U.S.-Mexico border reversed in 2005, a trend that accelerated through 2014, according to a Pew Research Center study. And native-born Americans aren’t interested in the job, even at wages that have soared at higher than average rates.” Because of this, farms have found a need to turn to AI to make up for loss of workers, and it just so happens that AI offers many benefits beyond replacing these now non-existent immigrant farmworkers.

Thanks to robots, farms can continue to harvest food during such labor shortages. Robots can also continue working in inclement weather, while their human counterparts cannot. Not to mention that AI is not affected by the night, leading to increased production rain or shine, day or night.

Niche
A higher rate of efficiency isn’t the only reason robots are becoming more popular. The mechanical workers can also take over the tasks that require the most skilled of workers. For instance, pruning grapevines in a vineyard takes a great amount of talent. Acquiring those skills requires significant training. Workers who specialize in such a niche are compensated accordingly. Wwhen replaced by robots, time and money spent on these specific workers go away.  Worrying about losing an expert pruner — whom an employer may have lavished hours of training upon — is no longer a concern.

“In some parts of the world, it’s (pruning grapevines) a craft that’s dying out. Training a robot to do that job means you no longer have the liability that your expert is going to move or retire,” said Sara Olson, lead agricultural analyst for Lux Research.

Production
The benefits continue when one hears about just how helpful robots can be when it comes to food production. Especially for farms that are producing commodity crops like soybeans and corn, these robots can serve as handy tools… just like they already are for Driscoll’s strawberry production.

The AgroBot strawberry harvester moves through fields using an artificial vision system to identify ripe fruit and pick it accordingly. With 60 arms, this machine can harvest a 20-acre farm in three days – a job that would take 20 humans three days to complete.

Robots surpass human workers for many reasons. AI comes equipped with remote sensors, satellites, and UAVs that can gather nonstop data on crop fields. A plant’s health, temperature, soil condition and more can be monitored constantly.

“I believe, by moving to a robotic agricultural system, we can make crop production significantly more efficient and more sustainable,” said Simon Blackmore, an engineer at Harper Adams University in Newport, UK.

Not only are robots more efficient, but they can also help keep plants healthier overall.

The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations estimates that 20–40% of global crops are lost yearly to diseases and pests. Not even the pesticides applied to the crops can prevent this, but it looks like robots can. Robots and other AI devices can lower the use of pesticides as they can spot crop enemies earlier to allow for precise chemical applications or pest removal.

According to Goldman Sachs, farm yields could rise by more than 70 percent in 2050 thanks to AI in agriculture.

The Flip Side: Robots and Small Farms

From filling in labor gaps to promoting healthier crops, robots offer many upsides to big farms. But, what about the little brother to agriculture? In a time where consumers desire to know exactly where their food comes from, organic, farm to table and mom and pop farms are becoming increasingly important.

Know Your Farmer
Today, people are becoming more aware of the food they consume and are beginning to grow an interest in where their meals are coming from. Instead of just accepting that the average American meal travels about 1,500 miles from the farm to your plate, consumers are become more knowledgeable about where they get their products from.

One downside to robots coming into small farms is that we risk hindering this feeling of closeness with our food. Some may not be satisfied to hear that a nameless, cold robot handled their food, instead of the farmers they’ve developed trusting relationships with.

Coates and Havens dispel this concern.

“I think this is backward. Robots will be able to track every plant every pass, from planting to harvest. They’re already using cameras to do the work — storing this data will definitely happen. Increased automation will bring incredible amounts of provenance data with it and that potentially will make our food supply more transparent than ever before,” Coates said.

Havens also points out that since robots spread fewer germs than humans, this betterment of hygiene will actually be welcomed by organic food fanatics.

The Money Factor
Ok, great, but robots are expensive and small farms don’t generate the revenue that commodity farms do to afford them. This leads to the worry that such family and organic farms will be left in the dust as robots continue to take over.

The Agrobot is one new robot that is popping up around farms. A small 1-arm version of this machine will cost around $100,000 alone. Compared to migrant workers who make as little as $6 a day in Mexico, it would be foolish for farmers to switch to machines in this case.

On a need-by-need basis, though, this may vary. For farms where there is a labor shortage, the aforementioned AgroBot may actually be a wise investment. In Eurpose, where there are stringent regulations that limit the amount of pesticides workers can be exposed to, a robot can be preferred.

Small farmers will have to weigh their costs wisely, but money doesn’t have to exclude them from advances in agricultural AI.

Can Big Machinery Mix with a Small Farm?
A lot of the robots currently being used on farms are things like heavy duty driverless tractors. For small farms, the need to harvest endless rows of corn isn’t there. However, it appears as though robotic machinery is starting to decrease in size as well. Just like cell phones have gone from giant bricks we hold next to our ears to pocket-sized screens, agricultural machinery is trending smaller and smaller as well.

According to Goldman Sachs, a fleet of smaller automated tractors could lift farmer revenue by more than 10 percent and reduce farm labor costs. This lighter machinery will reduce soil compaction and further promote plant growth. Goldman Sachs predicts farm technologies could become a $240 billion market opportunity for ag suppliers, with smaller driverless tractors a $45 billion market on its own.

Small, lightweight robots would be critical for fragile crops as well. Tomatoes can’t simply be harvested by large robotic tractors plowing through fields. They need specialized, detail-oriented beings to properly pick them. But, it’s believed that such machinery is on its’ way. Jorge Heraud, co-founder and CEO of Blue River Technology, says the industry is working on smart machines to automate some of the harvesting of such fragile crops like tomatoes and it could be available to growers within five to 10 years.

The Big Picture

When considering robotics in farming, one’s initial reaction may be to worry or become fearful. And as explained, that anxiety isn’t completely invalid. However, after diving in deeper and weighing the pros versus the cons of agricultural AI, the loss of jobs isn’t the most important thing, nor is it completely concrete.

For workers whose jobs are threatened by robots, they must consider that there are alternative ways in which they can be employed. There will still be a need for someone to design and control the machinery. There will also be jobs for people to build, sell and repair the machines that replace agricultural workers. And, with this in mind, the overall overflow of upsides that come with AI in agriculture is more evident than the downsides.

Big and small farms alike can now better control the health of their products, more easily plant, care for and harvest their crops and hence, deliver better quality food to the people of our nation and world. All in all, the bigger picture that is painted by robotics in the field is a lot prettier than one that is drawn absent of AI.

Photo by CloudVisual on Unsplash