Thursday, April 30, 2015

Robots Rising

Back when I wrote a lot about U.S. immigration policy, I noted that the hardest crop to automate was strawberries, but that doing so would be a very high value automation as it cost so much to pick the soft fruit, each of which ripens at a different time.

Now comes word that it has been done:

Harnessing high-powered computing, color sensors and small metal baskets attached to the robotic arms, the machine gently plucked ripe strawberries from below deep-green leaves, while mostly ignoring unripe fruit nearby.

Such tasks have long required the trained discernment and backbreaking effort of tens of thousands of relatively low-paid workers. But technological advances are making it possible for robots to handle the job, just as a shrinking supply of available fruit pickers has made the technology more financially attractive.

Machines are doing more than picking produce. Altman Specialty Plants Inc., one of the country’s largest nurseries, has been using eight, squat robots for the past two years to ferry more than 1.2 million potted roses and other plants to new rows as they grow larger. The $25,000, self-driving machines have occasionally gotten stuck in mud, but they freed eight workers for other jobs and ultimately paid for themselves in 18 months, said Becky Drumright, Altman’s marketing director.

The world of robots and artificial intelligence is making fantastic leaps, and I have already predicted that we will have robot dog trainers in the not-too-distant future. Robot drivers are already here, and also robotic flying cameras.

How about tiny robotic window washers? Not a problem. We already have tiny 9-gram robots that can pull a 2.2-pound load vertically up glass, which is equivalent to a human climbing a skyscraper while carrying an elephant. The strongest micro robots can pull 2,000 times their own weight — the equivalent of a human dragging a blue whale around the beach.

Rather than be scared of the robots rising, we should celebrate them.

Automated farm production will mean perfect watering and fertilizing, less waste, and more integrated pest management as beneficial bugs and fertilizers and sprays are spot-delivered by drones that power themselves up from solar grids.

And, as I wrote a few years back, farm mechanization has been pretty good for wildlife:

I do not begrudge farmers their air-conditioned cabs from which they can now plow, harvest and spray their fields to kill weevils and worms.

Nor do I beat by breast in anguish because genetically modified crops may soon make spraying pesticides a thing of the past.

I do not romanticize hoeing long rows by hand, nor do I worry too much about the impact that glyphosate (RoundUp) has on wildlife.

You see, America's farms now have more deer on them that at any time in the last 100 years.

They also have more turkey, fox, raccoon, duck and geese.

And the farms are strong.

They produce more hay, corn, soybean, wheat, chicken, pigs, eggs, fruit, vegetables, milk and beef than ever before.

And because they produce so much, more land is now allowed to lie fallow.

In another post I noted that the single greatest obstacle to us all eating better was a shortage of farm labor.

If we get rid of all our corn and soy bean fields, and replace them with locally-grown truck gardens, who is going to pick the lettuce, cabbage, string beans, onions, tomatoes, pumpkins, and zucchini?

A "hobby garden" is a fine thing, but you cannot feed New York, Dallas, Philadelphia, Atlanta, Boston, and Las Vegas on hobby gardens or hobby farms. You need massive plots and you need a heck of a lot of them....

If you have food crops that cannot be mechanized (and many crops cannot), then you need a massive labor force that will show up on call and without fail to work in the heat and bugs for 12 hour-days, and for as many days as it takes to bring in the crops.

And then, when the crops are in, you need those people to disappear until they are needed again at a moment's notice (i.e. during that magical three-day window when your fruits and vegetables are ready for harvest at maximum value).

But will it really by impossible to mechanize all crops? I once thought so, but I have changed my mind based on evidence.  If you can automation strawberry picking, you can automate anything. Now it's just a price point function.

Do I fear that the rise of robots and artificial intelligence will make us stupider? I do not. So far, technology has almost always made us smarter, more productive, and richer. Just look at the telephone, the automobile, and the camera.

And the iPhone? It will soon be smarter than we are:

Within seven years — about when the iPhone 11 is likely to be released — the smartphones in our pockets will be as computationally intelligent as we are. It doesn’t stop there, though. These devices will continue to advance, exponentially, until they exceed the combined intelligence of the human race. Already, our computers have a big advantage over us: they are connected via the Internet and share information with each other billions of times faster than we can. It is hard to even imagine what becomes possible with these advances and what the implications are.

I do not fear our robot overlords; I welcome them.


Ian Logan said...

This new state of the art hospital nicknamed "The Death Star" by locals (Glasgow gallows humour) has autonomous robot "porters" or "droids" in dedicated tunnels moving supplies, linen, food and waste around the complex.

A marvelous achievement something I dont grudge my taxes being spent on. Isn't progress wonderfull!

Isaac said...

Have you read "Future Crimes" by Marc Goodman? It may temper your enthusiasm. All about how unsecure and vulnerable all of that electronic "help" is. Good read, albeit terrifying.