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.
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.