Robot sentences to ponder

by on April 26, 2015 at 4:00 pm in Economics, Science | Permalink

Harnessing high-powered computing, color sensors and small metal baskets attached to the robotic arms, the machine gently plucked ripe strawberries from below deep-green leaves, while mostly ignoring unripe fruit nearby.

Such tasks have long required the trained discernment and backbreaking effort of tens of thousands of relatively low-paid workers. But technological advances are making it possible for robots to handle the job, just as a shrinking supply of available fruit pickers has made the technology more financially attractive.

…Machines are doing more than picking produce. Altman Specialty Plants Inc., one of the country’s largest nurseries, has been using eight, squat robots for the past two years to ferry more than 1.2 million potted roses and other plants to new rows as they grow larger. The $25,000, self-driving machines have occasionally gotten stuck in mud, but they freed eight workers for other jobs and ultimately paid for themselves in 18 months, said Becky Drumright, Altman’s marketing director.

And we used to say that gardening was one of the hardest jobs to automate.  By Ilan Brat, there is more here.

1 Brett April 26, 2015 at 4:17 pm

That’s great news. Farm labor has always been one of the most back-breaking, difficult work, and especially prone to exploitation. If we can replace it with machines, then all the better.

2 mulp April 26, 2015 at 4:54 pm

Given the labor costs of farm workers is less than 10% of the price of “farm fresh” food in the supermarket, if farm workers were not exploited but instead paid $100,000 year and thus became say 20% of the price in the supermarket, would you be arguing that robots are good for workers?

The exploitation of farm workers is just part of the economic theory since circa 1980 that workers are a burden on the economy, and by slashing labor costs and then legalizing by deregulating banks lending other people’s money to people who will never repay it, the economy will be better for everyone. The theory rests on the principle that consumers are not workers and workers are not consumers, thus slashing wages and incomes for workers will increase GDP growth rates.

Let’s replace the 50% of low wage jobs with robots based on its virtue. Then replace the 50% of low wage jobs remaining after the low wage workers are unemployed. Repeat. Eventually no one is working because robots do all the work. That means consumers rule the economy, being the only factor that determines GDP.

3 anon April 26, 2015 at 6:44 pm

i wasn’t aware supreme overlord Ronald Reagan introduced low wages for farm workers. thank you

4 Careless April 27, 2015 at 2:50 pm

Bush II loaned him his time machine so he could go back to prehistory to really screw the working classes.

5 J Graham April 28, 2015 at 5:11 pm

What? Theory circa 1980? Somebody tell Henry Ford.

6 Rahul April 26, 2015 at 5:24 pm

Umm…Yes, so long as we can find something else to feed those backs…..

7 Chris S April 27, 2015 at 11:17 am

Maybe they could dig holes and fill them back up again.

8 8 April 26, 2015 at 4:31 pm

These stories make a total mockery of people pushing for more unskilled migration/ immigration.

9 Rahul April 26, 2015 at 5:29 pm

Yes, just like those silly people who continue to buy boring cars when self-driving cars have now been around for half a decade.

10 anon April 26, 2015 at 4:31 pm

Will this raise food quality?


“Avoid dishes that are ‘ingredients-intensive.’ Raw ingredients in America – vegetables, butter, bread, meats, etc. – are below world standards.”

11 Gabi Huiber April 26, 2015 at 7:57 pm

It might. Robots don’t go to the portajohn and return to picking with unwashed hands — which is one of the ways to get e-coli on fresh produce. I’m not saying that the laborers are doing this on purpose, with malice, etc. I’m only saying that it’s not a problem with robots. On a related note, if farm labor is also indirectly responsible for spoilage down the chain, then the 10% share of the total cost charged to it is wrong, and the solution of automating it out of the chain beats the alternative of paying it better. Again, I hold no particular grudge against the farm laborers. I’m just pointing out some hypothetical advantages of robots, and the proper cost accounting when considering the alternatives.

12 James April 26, 2015 at 4:55 pm

I like how your linking to Google saves me the copy paste. Good stuff

13 The Devil's Dictionary April 26, 2015 at 6:15 pm

Less low-hanging fruit for unskilled workforce.

14 Kevin Erdmann April 26, 2015 at 6:55 pm

Apparently the commenters here think that the fact that we are all much better off than people were when 90% of us worked in agriculture is some sort of aberration. So going from 90% to 2% worked out ok, but going from 2% to 1%, that’s the straw that will break the camel’s back.

15 Cliff April 26, 2015 at 10:12 pm

Well we have to keep America attractive for illegal hispanic immigrants, otherwise where are all the future Obama voters going to come from?

16 Careless April 27, 2015 at 2:52 pm

future Obama voters


17 Dick King April 27, 2015 at 10:52 pm

Michelle Obama is eligible to run, and Melia will be eligible to run in 2036 .


18 Urstoff April 27, 2015 at 9:25 am

An agrarian, protectionist society seems to be an odd ideal for some around here.

19 charlie April 26, 2015 at 8:48 pm


These exact paragraphs could have been used in the 19th century to describe the cotton gin. There may at some point be robot-induced mass unemployment, but if you get worked up over the possibility by news like this you aren’t analyzing the problem correctly.

20 Clover April 27, 2015 at 1:13 am

Horses began to be replaced by machines in the early 19th century. Yet throughout that time there were more horses than ever before. Machines eliminated some roles for horses, trains replaced horses for long distance travel over land, but “the economy” continually generated new demand for horses. A horse breeder in 1910 concerned about the rise of automobiles might have assumed that the economy will always generate more jobs for horses, though he wouldn’t have had anything particular in mind.

From farm to factory to office to…what’s next?

21 Kevin Erdmann April 27, 2015 at 10:03 am

That’s exactly the problem, isn’t it, Clover? Markets’ strength in reality are their weakness in our imaginations. Because they always produce a future beyond what we could have imagined, ex ante we always compare real fears about what might be lost to a question mark about what might be gained. So supporting markets looks utopian or fundamentalist to those who take past progress for granted.

22 spencer April 27, 2015 at 12:27 pm

A century ago America allocated some 20% to 25% of its cropland to raising feed grains for draft animals.
Replacing draft animals with gasoline engine machine allowed farmers to reallocate that land for food crops.

23 Chip April 26, 2015 at 9:02 pm

The coming intersection of ubiquitous automation and costly low skilled labor is going to pose a near-existential crisis for modern society.

Japan has chosen already to reject cheap labour, while the U.S. has ramped up immigration of such workers to a generational high.

How will each deal with the crisis? How will countries that are almost entiry dependent on low skilled occupations handle the vanishing of cheap labour as a consideration for manufacturing?

While the decentralized market would eventually adjust to the changes we seem to be chained to giant single-minded political processes that never see past immediate electoral advantages.

24 Steve Sailer April 26, 2015 at 11:45 pm

In 1981 at UCLA MBA school, we studied an HBS case about how in the 1970s Robert Mondavi had introduced a simple automated system for harvesting wine grapes: entwine the vines around wires and have a machine that rolls along and taps the wire and the ripe grapes fall off and roll into a bin. The big drama was whether this would produce good quality wine. The reveal at the end: that harvest wins prizes because it tastes even better than the hand-picked usual bottles.

But in 1982 the Mexican economy collapsed, sending a surge of illegal aliens northward, wiping out the effectiveness of Cesar Chavez’s United Farm Workers’ union, cratering wages and industry interest in capital investments in labor-saving systems.

25 Dan Hanson April 27, 2015 at 12:32 am

“And we used to say that gardening was one of the hardest jobs to automate.”

We did? We have been automating gardening for a very long time. There have been automated greenhouses and hydroponics farms, robotic combines and tractors, automated irrigation systems, and much more.

Furthermore, that article is pretty much describing standard improvements in factory farming that have been going on ever since we started mechanizing agriculture. I worked in a grain elevator as a teenager in the late 1970’s, and they were already so automated and mechanized that they were a one-man operation (well, one man and a school kid with a summer job).

The robots described in the article are little different than the millions of robots that are already doing much the same thing in factories. Modern assembly lines are now chock full of digital sensors, cameras, and computers. Measuring the ripeness of a strawberry before plucking it is a straightforward application of computer vision algorithms that have been around for a long time. Fifteen years ago I toured a bottling plant that had digital cameras constantly imaging the contents of the bottle, and if impurities were found the bottle would be kicked with a rubber arm to push it down a different chute. Vision systems inspect painted surfaces for flaws, grab parts off the line and bend them to test for flexibility, So there’s really nothing new here.

The jobs lost are the ‘destruction’ side of creative destruction – the inefficient applications of human labor that ultimately hold society back. They have to be cleared away, and that labor pool then becomes available as a resource to other start-up businesses.

We are constantly destroying jobs – if we weren’t, there would be something terribly wrong with the way the economy was being run. We should celebrate the fact that we are learning to do more with less, allowing us to grow and continue to maintain and expand our qualify of life.

I think 1980 was about the first time I heard that automation was going to destroy all our jobs in 10 years. That’s 34 years ago, and in that period of time the economy has created millions of jobs.

But I’m sure this time it’s different.

26 Adrian Ratnapala April 27, 2015 at 1:23 am

When I was a lad studying robotics around the turn of the millenium, fruit picking was given as an example of a problem that people tried and failed at because it was much harder than it looks. All the bits seemed easy (robo arms, colour segmentation, traveling in straight lines) but the integration problem is hard. But integration problems do eventually get solved if they are important enough, and then they stay solved.

27 FUBAR007 April 27, 2015 at 2:29 pm

The problem isn’t job destruction per se. It’s that, in recent times, the new jobs being created tend to be shittier and lower-paying than the old jobs being destroyed. That is, we’re replacing middle-wage, middle-skill office and factory jobs with mostly low-wage, low-skill, dead end service and retail jobs. For those too old or without the resources to retrain for a high-skill, high-wage job, that means dropping out of the middle-class, in some cases the upper-middle class, and into the working class or working poor. Not surprisingly, such people–and those who empathize with their situation–are more than a little pissed off.

Capitalism has casualties. That is an unavoidable fact. The moral and policy questions are what, if anything, can and should be done to help them preserve their standard of living or offer them opportunities to get it back.

“But I’m sure this time it’s different.”

If artificial intelligence is truly possible, yes, it is. Marry that with advanced robotics, and you have machines that can do EVERYTHING humans can do and do it better, faster, and more efficiently. Human labor becomes obsolete at all levels.

But, even if it is possible, it’s not happening for at least several decades. It’s an over-the-horizon problem our descendants will have to deal with and is thus not terribly relevant to discussions of contemporary economic dislocations.

28 Axa April 27, 2015 at 7:53 am

The article is behind a paywall, photos don’t =)

29 buddyglass April 27, 2015 at 8:14 am
30 Hazel Meade April 27, 2015 at 10:46 am

It’s important to distinguish between a robot that does one specific task in a controlled environment (i.e. the straberries are all planted in uniform rows with the berries hanging down the sides of the boxes), and an all-purpose robot that can pick berries, and drive your car, and do your laundry.
Progress in making a berry-picking-specific robot does not mean we are any closer to acheiving artificial intelligence.

31 Brenton April 27, 2015 at 4:26 pm

That’s a little bit of moving the goalposts. (The “AI Effect”) Years ago you might be calling the “controlled environment” a laboratory, and saying that “just because a robot can work in a lab doesn’t mean we’re any closer to making one work outdoors on a farm”. I don’t know why an all-purpose robot is necessary or relevant, nor is AGI if you’re referring to that when you say ‘artificial intelligence’.

32 Hazel Meade April 28, 2015 at 12:15 pm

I’m not really moving the goalposts. I think we’re going to roboticize and automate many parts of the economy.
I just don’t think that we’re really moving any closer to a future that has anything like what people consider “artificial intelligence” in it.
The gulf between a strawberry picking machine and an AI robot is vastly bigger than the gulf between a dumb tractor and a “smart” tractor.

33 Gary F April 27, 2015 at 3:54 pm

I think articles like this refute the tongue-in-cheek “There is No Great Stagnation” articles.

34 James April 27, 2015 at 5:50 pm

Why is that? I see innovation here…

35 Ben April 27, 2015 at 10:59 pm

Innovation means no wages.

No innovation means no wages.

Policy is helpless in the face of these forces!

Let freedom and Halliburton ring!

36 Hazel Meade April 28, 2015 at 12:16 pm

Innovation means cheaper stuff.
Tha makes up for the no wages.

37 James May 3, 2015 at 8:58 pm

Robots are in my view the worst thing, it might give temporary results, but after that we are only going face failures, so that’s why it is so crucial to be working manually, as that will guarantee good results to some extend at least. I trade with OctaFX broker and they have great 50% bonus on deposit, so using that I can trade in a great way manually especially with having large money management due to this bonus been useable for margins.

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