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.

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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.

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