Final Paper (Agribots)


In the digital age, technology does not cease to amaze, aide, and leave humankind with questions and concerns. For the past 12,000 years, agriculture has relied on manual labor to harvest crops across the globe. With the rise in technology, agricultural robots, also known as agribots, are in development with the intention of replacing human manual labor. Agribots have applicable use during the harvesting stage of the agricultural cycle. According Eduardo González, Jr., State Diversity Specialist, Cornell University Cooperative Extension Farm workers in United States, 1 to 3 million of migrant workers work on harvesting.  Agribots not only promise the farmers of America a profit gain and make feeding the increasing world’s population possible, but also compete with millions of farmworkers for the same position. The development of crop appropriate agricultural robots that work with nearly perfect accuracy will bring long term economic and social advantages to society, but the issue of creating these machine brings an environmental concern. When we look at the ethical dilemma of jobs at stake and the earth’s health, we must look through a just and overly beneficial framework.

Technology in the agriculture domain is not a new idea. Historically, technology in agriculture has yielded higher productivity, where productivity is the ratio of input to output (Madden & Thompson, 87). The result of higher productivity continues to yield larger quantities of food, which is a sensible result. The role of agriculture is to adequately feed the world with fresh produce and plentiful crops. A problem that technology in agriculture has worked to solve, and continues to solve, is helping agriculture meet its task of feeding our world population. According to the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs, there will be 9.7 billion people on planet earth to feed by the year 2050. With such an increase in our population, the role of agriculture will remain as feeding the population. Technology, albeit not necessarily digital, has revolutionized agriculture in various eras. In order to keep up with the demand of food, feeding people at this scale will continue to utilize the scalable aide that only modern technology can provide.

Technology in agriculture affects three dominant areas, according to Dr. Sarala Gopalan. These areas are social, environmental, and economical. Each sector includes varying stakeholders. One stakeholder is the consumer, as their stake is the consumption and purchase of agricultural harvest.  As a consumer, food consumption is essential for living. Whether it be for health or energy, the daily consumption of food is vital to a consumer. The stake for the consumer is then to not only have an adequate amount of food to purchase, but to be able to do so at an affordable market price. Early adopting farms will have a beneficial stake in adopting automated technology into their harvesting process. By adopting early, farm owners will increase their profits. The rise of crops and decline in human age introduces a dilemma for the farmer; some of the harvest has the potential to be left unattended due to to imbalance of crops to human works(2009). The farmer will then benefit from adopting an agribot workforce by preventing the rotting of harvest.  The national economy will also be a beneficiary as their purchasing power increases. The national economy can also benefit from the export of farming commodities (Madden & Thompson, 88). The two stakeholders that can potentially be negatively affected by technology in agriculture are the current farm workers and animals. The current farm workers whose job is to harvest crops will be in competition with the automation of their job. Depending on the city of the fields, a varying percentage of citizens will become unemployed. The safety of animals in the handling procedures, like milking a cow, for example, are contingent upon the reliability of the technology at hand. If the machinery operating on the animal has little to no flaws, it can sustain the animal’s longevity. On the other hand, if the machinery is defective, the animal’s health will be at risk. All of the above-mentioned stakeholders each will influence how the ethical temperature on the matter unfolds.

The subject of automating manual labor with agribots introduces multiple perspectives. The two oxymoronic perspectives that bubble above the rest are the states of job loss and job creation. Automating such a position brings to question the elimination of all low-skill positions, which is at the heart of the ethical dilemma and a scare to current farm workers, economists, and politicians. There exists an other side to this fear; the side of job creation. Capitalizing on sophisticated 21st-century technology in agriculture also opens a new line of specialized positions. Specialized programmers and robotic engineers will be needed to design, create, and maintain these lines of robots. A relieving perspective of any possible worry due to job loss is that is leaves us with a larger pool of potential investment money that can be used to fund new companies. If the robots are truly profit enhancing and yield higher quality of fresh produce as they are marketed to be, the amount of benefits that can come from their creation and implementation are revolutionary. Other perspectives include the lower cost of food due to the abundant production.  All of these perspectives need to be addressed before any person’s manual labor becomes automated.

The current market of agribots have come a long way where technologies such as the Gripper, Manipulator and End Effector have been designed to produce a higher quality of fresh produce in an efficient manner. The End Effector, is designed for grasping, pushing, and cutting produce and is being used in Japan on grapes and berries for tasks of spraying, harvesting and packing.  The Gripper is designed in such a way that it considers the crop it will be working on. If a crop requires for the fruit to be cut from the stem, it will be designed with a device to serve these capabilities. This grasping device has a simplistic design and is useful for harvesting. The Manipulator serves as the body, which allows the gripper to navigate its environment. The Manipulator are “created from a sequence of link and joint combinations.” (RobotWorx). Manipulators are not usually mobile, but rather are mounted on the ground. The current state of robots do have computer vision capabilities and other sensing capabilities, but are not quite where they need to be to replace humans on farms.

The transition from where agriculture is today to where it is going to be will not happen overnight.  The creation of reliable robots that are created for the appropriate crop will need to be created and thoroughly tested.  Because farms are more challenging to automate than factories, agribots will need dexterous engineering to withstand the natural dynamic conditions of a farm. The ultimate goal of engineering efforts will need to fulfill the desired outcomes a farmer has for their crops. Tony Stentz of the Robotics Institute at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, says that picking fruit is not the challenge, but rather doing so cost efficiently is. Luckily for farmers, agribots of today have been engineered to include vision and other sensing systems to meet their promise of efficiency.  The nature of fruit variation with varying levels of sensitivity needs to be considered as well. Robots will need to be able to perform hand-picking movements such as twisting, plucking or sucking produce from stems all the while doing so with the right amount of pressure. Farms have far more variables to consider when they are placed in outdoor environments, like changing weather conditions. Though we have robots that are capable of manual labor in greenhouse environments, engineers need to consider the longevity of robots in regard to dynamic circumstances.  Agribots that are able to withstand open air farm environments will need to be developed.

When agribots become fit for such dynamic conditions and not have the limitations the the agribots of today have, each farm will have options to consider for their workforce. Assuming that enough early adopters find success with the integration of agribots in place of humans, even for a portion of their land, popularity and agribot demand is assumed. In this hypothetical case, farmers will have three options of adoptions. The first option for farmers will be for farmers to remain fully human operated, despite the rise in agribot popularity.  The second option that farmers will be able to make is the polar opposite; to rid human manual labor entirely and transition to a fully agribot operated farm. Spread, a Japanese vegetable producer has already set out to do this (2016). There does not need to be such polarity, though. The other option that is in the realm of possibilities is to reserve a fraction of low-skill manual positions for humans that are not in the position to acquire expert skills to create or maintain robots. Each option has weighted benefits and drawbacks that need to be closely examined by farm owners who wish to progress in their agricultural endeavours.

The first option of preserving an all human workforce has short term benefits for a small percentage of the population. On the other side of the same coin, it also reaps long term drawbacks to society. Remaining in the state of an all human workforce prevents the unfortunate possibility of a father or mother, or any existing manual laborer for that matter, becoming incomeless. The benefit is clear for the existing manual workforce; job security. The farmer is rest assured that the human is knowledgeable on safe picking and has exceptional vision and sensory capabilities from experience. Deciding to go with this option is to use a fairness or just ethical approach, which means that whatever is deemed as just is first observed through a fairness lens. Consequences in this case, are not considered.  Conversely, preserving an all human operated farm raises issues that Japan is facing right now. The problem of an aging population eliminates personpower to execute all parts of the agricultural cycle — planting, cultivating, maintaining, and harvesting. In this option, there is the undesired end for a farmer, which is to lose crop due to insufficient harvesting effort. A farm operating entirely on human power also comes with limitations of a solely sun-lit workday. As the population continues to grow, the limitations of an all person workforce will not be able to meet the demands of a much larger human population. Deciding to go with this option is to use a fairness or just ethical approach, which means that whatever is deemed as just is first observed through a fairness lens. Consequences in this case, are not considered.

Considering the second option of completely automating manual labor also has its share of benefits and drawbacks. Under the assumption that a farmer is making a decision to operate their farm solely on agribots due to their proven dexterous abilities to weather dynamic outdoor environments and familiarity with the crop or crops associated with the farm, very little concerns are raised. Aside from taking the jobs of various people, the other potential drawbacks are defects in technology. They may not be one hundred percent reliable in all weather conditions, despite previous testings, and will need regular maintenance in the case of updates or replacement. This is part of business and not necessarily a hindrance to business, as humans also are liabilities. Similarly, agribots will have costs that can accumulate to more than humans. Humans cost about $25,000 a year, while agribots can cost $32,000 each, according to researchers from the Bosch Group (2016). Various other benefits that this transition brings is, oxymoronically job creation. Jobs will be created for the research, design, creation and maintenance of Agribots. These jobs, of course require skills that will employ a skilled workforce rather than a lay workforce. To mitigate the negative effects that the job loss aspect of this option brings to low-skilled workers, there is the option for manufacturing companies to prioritize their low-skilled positions to the group of people who will be left without a position as a manual laborer. This is under the assumption that manufacturing companies will be located in the United States, and not offshore. Under these assumptions, the benefits of having an all agrobotic work force can reap the efficiency it promises, with an initial cost that can be costly.  

If a farm is fully employed by Agribots, the assumption is that there will be an increase in production. Economic development is prized by growth with less (Tamney, 2015). With such a circumstance, John Tamny, Forbes Magazine author and author of Popular Economics,  hypothesized that robots will generate investment capital to fund future companies of the future. Due to the supposed surplus of revenue that will be generated by these agribots, there will be opportunity for farm owners to become investors. In this situation, farmers would use some amount of their earnings to fund other companies, thus creating an entrepreneurial eco-system of economic growth. This perspective is long term, and doesn’t account for the immediate results of job loss to the short term job loss or initial cost of agribots. The option of a full fledged agribotic workforce still does not account for the number of jobs that can be lost and not replaced. Though having this option will hopefully drive the children of farm workers to aspire to become skilled workers, the adults that have a family to maintain, or simply enjoy the outdoors will still be in a jobless dilemma, even if it is short term. Using this option involves a utilitarian approach which means that the greatest amount of good for the greatest amount of people is considered. An article from Santa Clara University says, “Given its insistence on summing the benefits and harms of all people, utilitarianism asks us to look beyond self-interest to consider impartially the interests of all persons affected by our actions.”

The third options is a hybrid of the last two options. The idea is that some farms will choose neither to be fully human operated or fully agribotic operated. Farms would instead have a fraction of their workforce be humans and the remainder be agribots. The ratio of people to agribots on a farm can vary depending on the advancements that have been made on the agribots, the type of produce the farm yields, and the heart that the farm owner has for keeping low-skilled positions open to those who either like the option of working with their hands in the outdoors or have no option. This option has much flexibility for fair mitigations on a farm-to-farm basis. There could be a grace period of keeping some number of employed humans until they find a replacement. Such measures eliminate any societal short term drawbacks that this transition could have. The same benefits that agribots generally bring to the landscape of agriculture still hold true in this option. One possible downturn is a revolt of human workers that do not like the idea of sharing a position of a robot. There is the possibility of human workers turning the table on their farm, in a worst case, it could be during harvest, where they are most needed. This option still holds the benefits of job creation, economic development and scaleable harvest. This option considers both approaches, the fairness and utilitarian views.

My solution is the third option of a hybrid plan. J.P. Gownder, an analyst with the Boston-based tech research firm Forrester, says that it is a job transformation, not a job replacement. A father  and mother will still have an opportunity to gain a position working a blue collared position, or with proper training, work along side the robot, not in lieu of it (Metz, 2016). Priority employment at robot manufacturing facilities will be given to previous farm workers in effort to mitigate the impact of this transition. When the time comes for a full migration from human to robots, I believe that the most ethical thing for a company to do is option two: keep a fraction of  human workers on the fields for the amount of time they see appropriate. This option seems like a conservative and flexible decision to make. Since the demographics vary from farm to farm, each farm would have the flexibility of making a ratio appropriate human to agribot count. This decision is sound especially for a farm that has not yet been an early adopter of agribots. They can always be introduced with a small fraction of agribots to test the water while human workers that were replaced would have the opportunity to work at the manufacturing facility, the remainder of human workers would also have an opportunity to secure a job elsewhere. Farmers that have been through early adoptions stages can still follow this route and utilize their current human workforce for purposes of partial agribotic maintenance, while workers still have work in the meantime. Having a hybrid workforce allows room for an interaction between human and robot. If a program was put in place to train existing works how to maintain these agribots, this would be the ideal case and could also be extended up until the replaced workforce would retire. The children of the farmers would ideally be placed in a program that taught them tech skills. This would allow for their potential to be realized as an individual and provide an alternative to physical labor that will not be available.

This is ethically justified through the lense of John Stuart’s Utilitarian framework where the greater good is done for the greatest amount of people. From this framework, the greater amount of good is the people that will be healthy due to proper food supply that was harvested by an efficient agribot workforce, job creation, economic development, lower cost in produce, new opportunities for existing manual laborer to possibly learn new skills and to maintain the agribots, a wave a new young engineers where the least amount of good is the short term loss of a job.  As a student of computer science and software engineering, the transition from a human workforce to one of agribots does not affect me economically, but theoretically benefits me. This recommendation is especially true under the assumptions that these decisions will begin to be made after more advancements have been made on the agribots. This is a scenario where the agribots have been designed and built to withstand the dynamic variations that an open air, less controlled, weather variant experiences. Some limitations to this stance could be that existing laborers simply are not interested in learning how to maintain new agribots.

Seeing that technology is inevitable, and in fact growing quickly in agriculture, being academically prepared is the best solution for the youth. Students interested in agriculture need to make an educational choice to study a major that falls in the STEM category (Science Technology Engineering and Math).  If people are studying the Science of Agriculture, it would be wise to minor or at least be knowledgeable in computer science to some extent. For the adults who are in fear of job loss, I would recommend being financially ready in the case that their job does become replaced by an agribot. Having a savings fund to account for up to 6 months to a year of income would alleviate any financial loss during time spent away from work during their job transition. If the current farm worker is able to commit time to learning technical skills at a local community college or online, they would find a greater chance of keeping up with the changing landscape of jobs. A farm owner who sits in the ultimate decision seat needs to carefully consider their land size, current workforce, and future implications of which option is best to execute the demand that a growing population bring.

Automating manual labor in agriculture can be done in an ethical matter. When agribots reach a reliable and agile stage, decision makers will need to make a decision that is best suitable for all stakeholders. Choosing to maintain a farm with a hybrid workforce will best reach the needs of all stakeholders. The stakeholders that this most aligns with is the consumer and farm owner, though current farm workers are considered to the full possible extent. The short term effect it can have on an individual or society can be mitigated by having the person affected prepare now, or by the farm owner’s best judgment in deciding how quickly they wish to increase the employment of amount of agribots.



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