From self driving tractors, to pest eradication, to robots that are better than you are, we’ve covered a lot of things that were probably unsettling. It might be very tempting to just sit back on our haunches and think about how terrible all of this is and how it is ruining everything. However, I think that these ethical questions are going to just be the uncomfortable parts of much greater things. Few things in life are black and white, and technology is certainly no different. In the future we may consider these ethical questions to have been trivial compared to the great improvements the robots have introduced.
The good news is that you may soon be able to run your farm in an idealized form. You might be able to finally run your farm in the most eco-friendly way possible, or you might be soon seeing some record profits. You might be finally able to stop worrying about hiring illegal immigrants – or you might one day get to boast among your neighbors that you still do things the old-fashioned way with blood, sweat, and lots of calloused hands. Ethics rarely have an obvious or easy answer, but the sooner you get involved with technology, the sooner you can help shape it.
The bad news is that so can your neighbors. So can the “megacorporation” with headquarters in New York that has no idea what it’s like to have mud on boots. The number of farms is decreasing, but a large part of that is because farms are being bought by corporations and by other farms. Some corporations may have ethics that align with yours, while other corporations may be the opposite. The sooner you keep up with technology, the sooner you can guide the direction it takes. In the New York Times, journalist Natasha Singer wrote an article titled, “On Campus, Computer Science Departments Find a Blind Spot: Ethics” – in which she discovered that many tech companies are choosing to blatantly ignore ethics in favor of making big profits, and asking for forgiveness. Agricultural tech companies are not immune to this, and farmers will need to be loud and vocal about their own moral compass, and the direction this technology takes.
Thankfully, some tech companies are starting to listen. In the BBC article “Why ‘worthless’ Humanities Degrees May Set You up for Life“, Amanda Ruggeri discovered that some companies are hungry for liberal arts majors, philosophers, English majors, and psychologists as they begin to grapple with the real world consequences of technology. If farmers want the technology going into their farms to be ethical, they should be encouraging companies like Case and John Deere to hire graduates of these supposedly ‘worthless’ degrees, so a human voice with a moral compass can be put into these robots.
It would be easy to judge someone who doesn’t use this technology to create our own idealized form of a farm. We will be forced to make difficult decisions, and we should take pity on the people who also must make these decisions. The life of a farmer is not likely to get easier, it will likely continue to be just as difficult as it always has – but with newer, more difficult questions.
One hundred years from now, a farmer wakes up long before the sun rises. She peeks through the windows and sighs – the robot lights aren’t on. There was some concern after the cloudy day before that they wouldn’t have enough juice in their batteries to get going before the sun came up. That means she’s going to have to run into down to get some diesel for the generator to get them started. At $50 a gallon, she’ll have to remind the farm’s Operations AI to adjust the budget so that she can still afford to get the new dress for her daughter’s prom. She has a long day ahead of her, as she checks over every acre to approve the farm’s pest management algorithms – if she’s lucky she can be in bed by midnight. She longs for the good ol’ days of 2019, when farmers had it easy.
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.
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.