Ethics of Future Farm Tech (Part 6 of 6)

Final Thoughts

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.

This was the last blog post as part of a series. To visit the beginning, click here.

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.

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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 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.

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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.

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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 3 of 6)

Perfect Pest Prevention

Imagine all your weeds and pests gone like this…

Within the next few decades we may perfect the ability to remove pests from our fields. As mentioned in the first post, there are already companies developing robots that can identify and eliminate weeds. The directions these companies are taking ranges from selectively spraying herbicides onto weeds, which would not only eliminate the need to insert resistance genes into crops but would also allow you to spray a wide variety of herbicides on a field, drastically reducing the chance of resistance naturally occurring. The other direction these companies are taking, is a physical approach to weed elimination. Smashing, crushing, or cutting the weeds. While weeds may evolve thicker roots to resist the robots, we can also keep making the robots stronger.

Like this… except Skynet is after dandelions instead of people.

               With weeds eliminated, the remaining pests will be fungi and animals. While fungi may be a more difficult pest to eliminate, the problems with birds and insects will likely be solved soon after weeds. Already being used in developing countries, we have lasers that shoot down mosquitoes. Since the technology used on these mosquitoes is sensitive enough to determine what is a benign insect – even down to gender – the technology could be adapted to zap aphids, Japanese beetles, or hessian flies. Anything with wings can be identified based on the wing beat pattern, and they can be eliminated.

               When it comes to birds, we just have to look to efforts being taken under the seas for the answer. In Australia, the Queensland University of Tech is developing an underwater drone that can identify and kill invasive species. If a drone can navigate the three dimensions of the seas, it can navigate the skies. If it can correctly identify invasive species through hazy conditions in the water, it can do so even in foggy mornings. What’s more, the drones will not be on a food chain, they can be de-activated with a switch, and you won’t have to train them. While some farmers today hire falconers to discourage birds from eating crops, in the future they will be able to have drones do this. A professional falconer won’t be needed, just a few people willing to drive the drone to its next job.

               However, there are a few issues with this technology. I recall my boss at Central Oregon Agronomy pointing out that there is no such thing as a weed. A weed is just a plant we don’t want. A weed to Farmer Joe, is the lifeline of a monarch butterfly. What looks like an annoying yellow flower to one neighbor, is a free salad green to the next. If every farmer has the ability to flip a switch and eliminate every single competing plant in a field – will she do it? Should she do it? If we could overnight make every noxious weed extinct, some might leap at the chance. But there are some insects that rely on the plants for their life cycle. The elimination of a plant that one person considers a weed, may result in the elimination of an insect that relied on it. Perfect pest prevention may result in further problems up the food chain.

               You might feel the urge to point out that herbicides have been promising weed elimination for decades, and none have succeeded so far. Plus, you might add, there will always be irrigation and drainage ditches, the lazy farmer across the street, and your dog from the last blog post that survived the tractor incident now has seed burs in his fur. However, with artificial intelligence and machine learning, we are on the verge of creating an intelligence that can adapt and destroy faster than we can. And if we don’t all agree on what should be destroyed and what should live, we could very quickly throw the animal kingdom into chaos.

               If one farmer decides he will employ drones to hunt blue jays stealing his corn, but his neighbor only cares about crows, then the blue jays may to stay in one field, and the crows in the other. However, if across an entire township every farmer has different rules about what birds and insects are allowed in his farm, it may be impossible for the birds to keep track – and it would certainly be impossible for the insects. Crows will not be able to break out field maps and mark which farms have drones, and which ones don’t. Without a pattern for birds to adapt to, we may very quickly eliminate all birds in the area, along with many insects. The ability to have a perfect monoculture is just around the corner, but we may need to all come to an agreement on what we consider pests we want to eliminate, and what we’re willing to live with.

Of course, if we can’t decide, maybe machines will just make that decision for us?

To continue, join me at Better Than Human

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.

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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 2 of 6):

The Self-Driving Farm

In the opening pages of Robot Ethics 2.0, we’re presented with one of the most infamous ethical dilemmas, the Trolley Problem. In the trolley problem, you find yourself standing next a lever that controls the rails of a trolley. The trolley’s brakes are broken and it cannot stop. Your switch will let you change which rail the trolley will advance down, but there’s a catch. On one rail, there are several people tied to the rail, and on the other, just one person. There are some variants to the trolley problem. In some, the one person is your spouse, while the people tied down are your children, making it a more difficult decision. In another, there’s a fat man nearby that you could push onto the tracks to stop the trolley, but in doing so you’d be certainly declared a murderer. The point of the trolley problem is to present a person with a no-win scenario where they will be forced to choose the lesser of two evils.

               This scenario is infamous, but unlikely that we would ever be faced with it in our day to day lives. The life of a robot, however, is very different. When a human makes a decision to drive onto the side walk and run over someone, rather than crash into a schoolbus full of a children, it is the driver that is held responsible. When a robot with some degree of self-awareness does it, who is responsible? The programmer, the manufacturer, the owner of the vehicle, or is the robot capable of being punished?

               A farmer may be wondering what this has to do with her, but she may one day find herself browsing self-driving tractors that are ranked by their ability to make ethical decisions on the fly. Self-driving farm equipment is probably closer to reality than self-driving trucks or taxis. Case IH has already revealed their own self-driving tractor, and John Deere has been showing off an autonomous tractor of their own that’s capable of being accurate down to 2.5 centimeters.

               But a farmer will still need to be able to trust the equipment to get the job done well. If a hired hand takes the tractor for a joy ride, he can be fired. But can a tractor be trusted not to use the livestock as manure, and to avoid knocking down a barn to make more space for rows?

               Consider a scenario where you have just purchased a self-driving spreader. It rained a few days ago, but you need to get seed in the ground soon or you’ll be harvesting late. As the spreader gets to work, it sends an alert back to you in the comfort of your home office that the ground is muddy and it is struggling to slow down. You head outside to see just how bad it is, when the family dog runs out with you. Being eager to help, she catches up to the spreader before you do. The spreader is then faced with an ethical dilemma – does it swerve to avoid the pet – does it apply its brakes and risk sliding into the dog – or does it continue with its task, ignoring this new variable?

Sketch by Heidi Richter

               For some the answer is obvious. It should do what it needs to do to avoid hitting the dog. For another farmer, the deep gouges the spreader leaves as it slams to a stop will mean an unproductive spot on the farm, so the spreader needs to swerve. Some farmers may say they need the perfect rows for their other robots to work, and the gap between rows will allow sunlight through where weeds can take root – so the tractor may need to slam on its brakes even if it means the family dog gets hurt. All of this will assume that the tractors are intelligent enough to tell the difference between the family pet, and a piece of mud on a sensor that looks like Fido.

               The artificial intelligence governing these self-driving tractors may one day be intelligent enough to make these decisions on the fly, but until then, companies like Case and John Deere may soon be knocking on the doors of farmers and asking them to weigh in on difficult ethical decisions. After all, when a tractor does something unethical, who is to blame? The programmer, the owner of the tractor, or will the tractor be aware enough that the artificial intelligence itself can be punished? Before these questions can be answered, the machine must be capable of making these decisions in the first place.

It is likely that in the short term these tractors may come with settings you can adjust – your own tractor might tread carefully and leave sloppy rows to keep your pets and children safe. While Kenneth down the road? Some say he’s stopped keeping pets around after the last few incidents – but his rows are perfect and his yields are top in the county. Of course, everyone knows that Kenneth also uses robots that eliminate anything that isn’t corn or soy. He utilizes Perfect Pest Prevention methods.

To continue, join me at Perfect Pest Prevention

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.

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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 1 of 6)

Imagine the life of a farmer one hundred years ago. You woke up as the sun rose, you might take a shower, you might not. Breakfast would probably be some oatmeal before heading out to make sure your animals survived the night. Depending on the season you may then spend the rest of the day plowing one muddy row after the next, or later in the year you might be walking up and down the rows pulling weeds. If it was a good day, you might be able to finish just as the sun sets, and head home to a lukewarm dinner. You might finally get that shower, but more than likely you’d put that off until you had to look good on Sunday.

                Believe it or not, but today the life of a farmer isn’t that much easier. He wakes up just before the sun rises, but now he gets to take a hot shower and usually a hot breakfast. But the rest of the day will be busy. He will drive a tractor, spreader, or a combine. He might skip lunch to get a few more acres finished. He will still walk the fields for weeds. But that isn’t all. There are new added pressures. Can he afford fertilizer this year, or should he cut corners so he can buy a used pickup for his 16 year old son? Should he apply pesticides, or let things go a little wild for a season since he heard that insects are dying off at an alarming rate, and his neighbors complain about what he’s spraying anyway. His day ends well past sunset, having spent the evening catching up on the paperwork side of the farm.

                 On the horizon are some new technologies promising to make a farmer’s life better, cheaper, and better for the environment. Case IH has revealed a self driving tractor promising to make running a farm more efficient. Meanwhile, tech startups ecoRobotix and Deepfield Robotics are developing robots that can selectively spray or pull weeds, promising to either eliminate or reduce the amount of pesticides needed. However, the book Robot Ethics 2.0 reveals that a lot of new technology comes with unexpected ethical problems. It would be tempting to think that all this new technology will solve our problems and the life of a farmer will suddenly become easy. Unfortunately, I believe these new technologies will actually result in more difficult ethical questions. A farmer will be faced with making even more difficult choices, rather than having an easier time.

This is the first part of a blog series I will be doing on the ethics of future farm technology. In the next post, I will discuss the self driving tractor, and the ‘trolley problem’. After that, I will discuss the perfection of pest prevention – from robots that kill weeds with expert precision, to the elimination of insects and birds – and whether we even agree on what a pest is. Following that, I will discuss how robots may soon be better at many tasks considered uniquely human – and whether we’ll have a place on farms in the future at all. Finally, I will speculate on what types of farms we may see in the future that incorporate all of this technology.

To continue, join me at The Self-Driving Farm

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.

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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.