When Robots Run Our Nation’s Farms


Written by Dominic Basulto, a Big Think blogger

A new generation of robot drones is revolutionizing the way we farm in America, with Kinze Manufacturing and Jaybridge Robotics recently announcing the first-ever robot drone tractor capable of farming without the need for a human operator. Video clips are already circulating online of the Kinze tractor, gracefully coordinating its harvest dance with other autonomous machines. Once this robot drone tractor becomes part of the agricultural mainstream, robots will decide where to plant, when to harvest and how to choose the best route for crisscrossing the farmland. Humans, except perhaps as neutral trouble-shooters, will be all but unneeded. So what does it mean when robots run our nation’s farms?

As Ian Berry of the Wall Street Journal points out, farmers in America’s heartland are embracing these robot drones for their ability to dramatically increase the efficiency and productivity of any farming venture. The robotic tractors and robotic harvesters are just the latest “autonomous” innovations that are changing the face of farming. Farmers already rely heavily on smartphones, RFID-embedded pallets, and precise, satellite-guided systems — and thatís even more true for giant agricultural ventures, where knowing when and where to plant can lead to significant improvements in total crop yield. As the USA Today suggests, it’s best to think of these new robotic farming machines the same way we think of Roomba for vacuums — but with more at stake for everyday Americans.

The flip side of increasingly efficient robotic farming is that we risk becoming further disassociated from our food. The whole point of the locavore movement, right, was to bring us closer in touch with local food and its provenance? The whole point of the organic movement was to make our food somehow more “natural.” In an era where each of us wants to know exactly where our “line-caught” fish and “pasture-raised” beef came from, are we really going to settle for the answer: ďRobot Drone #42?Ē If no pesticides were used, no growth hormones used, is it still OK to refer to the food as ďorganic,” even if itís been harvested by a robot?

The good news is that the relentless automation of farming does not need to come at the exclusion of the organic farming movement. There are numerous examples of small farming collectives embracing the new technologies. The growBot Garden project, coordinated with the support of Georgia Tech and Atlanta’s independent food community, for example, has helped to push the boundaries of how we think about robotic farming and sensors for organic farming. The leaders of the growBot Garden project, in fact, have emphasized that organic farming does not need to be anti-technology. Robots do not necessarily mean less nutritious food.

At a time when there is a relentless trend toward the automation of agriculture, itís clear that robotic innovations can help farmers to yield more food from the land. They will change the way we eat, and how we think about food. Itís always been a truism that a nation that can feed itself has less of a food security risk than a nation that can not. (Even if the farm robots are foreign-built robots Ė like those from the Dutch company Case IH) The idea of the American breadbasket being controlled by robots may once have seemed like science fiction: giant hover crafts, predator bots to devour pest organisms and metallic robo-workers. That vision assumed that corporate agribusiness interests would run the whole show. However, is it possible that these robots instead can equally serve the interests of local, small-scale agriculture?

This post was originally published by Big Think.


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Technology Instead of Human Caregivers?


Photo from Wisconsin Historical Images via flickr creative commons


Jim Ven
Jim Venabout a year ago

thanks for sharing.

Carole R.
Carole R5 years ago


Mirella S.
Mirella Santillo5 years ago

When cashiers are replaced by scanners, farmers by robots, what happens to the human workforce?
As our population increases, we are being replaced more and more by technology. How can the millions born each day find work when they are of age if the present trend does not stop?

Citizen G-Karl
Karl Heinemann5 years ago

Life in the state of nature is "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short" - Thomas Hobbes.

From that perspective, the advent of robotic farmers looks like a major step forward! Personally, that type of labor has little appeal for me, and I somewhat agree with Hobbes.

On the other hand, will human society create other job niches in which the displaced farmers could earn a living?? This seems like an especially poignant question just now, in an era when the forces of capitalism appear to have brought ~most~ job creation to a standstill.

Looking at the "robotic farmer" question from a different perspective, will we need to provide safeguards like Asimov's Three Laws of Robotics to keep us humans safe from the robots? And actually, those three laws probably will be far from adequate their intended purpose. In the later books about Asimov's robots and their history, the robots end up dominating and "dumbing down" humanity in a totally invisible manner, all within the context of those three laws and a fourth "Zeroth law" that the robots themselves add later.

So, I feel we need to think and anticipate long-and-hard before we give robots any ability to independently set and pursue any goals or policy that goes beyond the labor that we're currently crafting them to do.

Citizen G-Karl
Karl Heinemann6 years ago

Someday, I hope, we'll develop robots that have ~some~ aspects of human consciousness, so that we can trust them to grow our food and manufacture our machinery with the same care that we ourselves would put in.

Thank you, Jim G., for your comment below.
"Life on the land is hard, brutal, and short" - Hobbes.

Citizen G-Karl
Karl Heinemann6 years ago

Someday, I hope, we'll develop robots that share some aspects of human consciousness, so that we'll be able to trust them to grow our food and manufacture other goods with the same care that we'd put in ourselves.

Thank you Jim G., for your comment below!

Mary B.
Mary B6 years ago

What everybody seems to be over looking is the roll human consciouness plays in the quality, or lack of it, in everything. If you like those automated phone menues, this is right up your wazoo. If you'd rather talk to a real person who is present,and able to get some action on your behalf, then this probably will not appeal. There is room for hybred approaches, but total robotics is pretty much a mirror image of what people become when they loose their connection to the Earth and their ability to feel a willing and loveing heart.

Jo Asprec
Jo Asprec6 years ago

thanks for making me aware of the issues.

Hannah S.
Hannah Short6 years ago

down with technology, start getting to know the planet we live on

Jim Gayden
Jim Gayden6 years ago

Inevitably everything will become mechanized, money will have no value, and nobody will have to work. At this point the major benefits will be that all enlightened individuals will be able to indulge in humanitarian thinking, education, science, sports, and the arts. All others will try to devolve society due to apathy, ignorance, and your every day stupidity. But hopefully these malcontents (republicans) will resolve the errors of their ways. But since we have not yet reached this level of enlightenment, there will be much suffering in the meantime (due to republicans).