Ethics of Future Farm Tech (Part 5 of 6)

Future Farm Types
Vertical ‘farm’ skyscrapers – art by Vincent Callebaut Architects

In preparing for this blog, I interviewed two people I considered experts in agriculture. Professor of Agriculture at Parkland College, Jennifer Fridgen, and Rich Affeldt, senior agronomist at Central Oregon Seeds, Inc. During the interview, they both expressed some similar concerns. They both lamented that people don’t care about the life of a farmer, and no one understands the struggles they go through. They also both feared what farms may look like in the future. Fridgen feared the loss of farm culture, and the rise of corporate farms. Affeldt feared that farm sizes would shrink, and there would be more ‘farmettes’ – farms that are small, specialized, and barely profitable.

I think they are both right. Many different directions will be taken with farming and the successful ones will continue. The organic farm movement is a throwback to simpler times, and this trend may continue. Some farms will resist using robots, boasting about employing hardworking individuals, managing their fields by hand, and fighting nature the way God intended. Other farms may fully embrace the technology, becoming fully automated where no one steps foot in the field because the owners are actually an LLC with offices in a high rise in Chicago. There will be some farms that are environmentally friendly to the extreme – growing a wide variety of plants, with corn and soybean growing alongside each other, crowded by milkweed and sunflowers, tended to by robots. Others may go entirely economic – growing corn or soybeans with not a single other living thing allowed in its confines. They’ll be extremely productive, but extremely damaging to the environment.

People, businesses, and robots may have different opinions on the best way to farm.

               Where your farm may fall within here is only up to you to decide, but don’t think you’ll be able to keep running your farm the same way forever. If it isn’t you, it will be your children. Within the next few decades, robots will revolutionize industries and farms won’t get by unscathed. For many it will be a matter of remaining profitable. The robots will be cheaper labor, they’ll make decisions faster, they’ll be more accurate than a sharpshooter, and they won’t get tired. In “The Dawning of the Ethics of Environmental Robots“, authors Aimee, Donhauser, and van Wynsberghe reveal a rapidly growing taxonomy of ethical and environmental “ecobots”. Many robots are becoming specialized and better suited for their tasks than humans could ever be. They believe that some of these robots could one day be used to restore habitats that humans destroyed.

But it won’t just be black and white. In the video embedded below, the German educational youtube channel Kurzgesagt (German for “In a Nutshell”), tries to tease apart the myths and misconceptions of organic versus conventional agriculture. In the video, they describe a future scenario where the lines may begin to blur as robotics and technology advance, making organic farming methods easier, while GM crops may become more valuable. They put forth the idea that many farms in the future will be hybrids, utilizing the best parts of all approaches.

                I believe that between the extreme examples of my farms, from the extremely environmental, to the extremely destructive, will be an ideal farm that is productive beyond our dreams, and yet teeming with life. A farmer will find it economical to eliminate invasive species and noxious weeds, but may find that their soil thrives if a few local plants are permitted to grow. Environmental activists could be soothed knowing that the farms are doing their part to restore habitats, and allowing endangered species to live in their field, while exterminating invasive destructive ones. She may employ a few helping hands to help repair the robots and do odd jobs around the farm, but the specialized tasks will be left to the robots. If a half acre looks like it will be unproductive, a robot could swiftly replace the crop with some other fast-growing crop – or even a garden. In the future, this could give farmers an alternative income in usually unproductive areas.

To continue, join me at finale, Final Thoughts.

For citations, please visit my bibliography in the link below. It will be updated as more citations are found, with commentary as more information is uncovered.

Live Bibliography Available Here.

At the time of this writing, I am a student of computer science & crop science at Parkland College in Illinois. To learn more, check out my About Me page.

Ethics of Future Farm Tech (Part 4 of 6)

Better Than Human

I remember when I realized I was going to need a formal education to keep up with technology in agriculture. I overheard my boss and a coworker discussing a robot that would pull weeds. Soon after it was purchased people around the office started discussing robots coming for their jobs. As for myself, I realized I wasn’t going to be able to fix this robot if it broke, and I knew we would only be getting more robots in the future.

               In the article “Here, There, Virtually Anywhere”, Helen Thomson (New Scientist, Oct 11, 2012) reveals that the invention of robots and drones are changing the work flow. You don’t have to “be” somewhere to get a job done anymore. Whether in war zones or contaminated hazard zones, people are beginning to use robots to get the job done. It may be possible that one day, instead of the risk of hiring illegal immigrants, you employ robots controlled by people from a company based out of Mexico City – or Lagos, Nigeria for that matter. Furthermore, being robots, you wouldn’t have to worry about exposure to pesticides, bad weather, or even providing an outhouse.

                There is also the possibility that robots may be able to behave even more ethically than we can. Robot Ethics 2.0 briefly discusses a concept called ‘Superethical’ whereas a robot intelligence can behave more ethically than a human can. An example of this can be found in some Dutch dairy farms where robots are learning to interact with cows (and vice versa) to develop a system where the cows actually consent to being milked. By not being human, the robots can learn to “understand” the cows, and the cows can learn to associate the robots as not machines of human masters, but as friends. These machines can interact with animals in an ethical way that humans cannot. It is possible that in the future the best way to farm may be to farm without humans involved at all. If we still get our bountiful harvests and the bills are paid, does it matter if all the labor is done by machines? Indeed, some are even calling for a revision of what is considered ethical. In the Journal of Agricultural & Environmental Ethics, an article titled “Environmentally Virtuous Agriculture” makes the case for thinking ethically in terms of the whole ecosystem itself, rather than simply anthropocentric ethics. Ethics are a human concept, and it’s possible that robots may be able to think outside human constraints. The authors of Environmentally Virtuous Agriculture, Matthew Barker and Alana Lettner, argue that current ethical definitions are short-sighted, and a broader approach is needed.

               If ethics are a human created concept, than surely it is up to us to decide what is good and what is bad, right? Well, in the future humans may not even be needed to determine if the crops are producing good food at all. Very recently, in the article “Machine Learning is Making Pesto Even More Delicious” the compounds that give basil its flavor were isolated and a machine learning algorithm was put to work determining the best growing conditions to maximize the flavor compounds. The algorithm was then able to determine perfect lighting conditions, humidity levels, and other factors to grow some very potent basil. In the book The Dorito Effect, by Mark Schatzker, it is explained that the concept of flavor is no longer the domain of humans. It has been analyzed, named, and quantified. A good tasting strawberry isn’t a vague idea, it’s chemicals and flavor compounds and a robot can be told to grow fruit that produces a lot of those flavors, and it will get to work – no more human necessary.

               My concern is for all the people who will be unemployed due to these robots that can do our jobs better than we can. If given the choice between hiring an illegal immigrant that is the father of one of your best employees, and outsourcing the job to a company on the other side of the planet – which is the lesser evil? Do you break the law to hire someone under the table while providing an income to a local, stimulating the local economy? Or do you obey the law, keep your hands clean, and slowly siphon money away from your farm into a corporation with no ties to you? Today, a farmer may shrug and say he has no choice but to hire migrant workers. In the future he might have a choice, and he might not like his options.

               If a robot can maximize the quality of food in your field, soon it doesn’t matter how much of a great steward of the earth you are. If a robot knows the best way to produce the best food, it’s possible that any attempts on your own part to tinker with the quality of your field will only be an impediment. It won’t matter that your grandfather ran his farm in just such a way that the soil is as fertile as the garden of Eden after generations of hard work. A robot may come in, take a sample of the soil, and tell you exactly where he went wrong.

In the future, farms might be entirely autonomous.

To continue, join me at Future Farm Types

For citations, please visit my bibliography in the link below. It will be updated as more citations are found, with commentary as more information is uncovered.

Live Bibliography Available Here.

At the time of this writing, I am a student of computer science & crop science at Parkland College in Illinois. To learn more, check out my About Me page.