Robots have been a part of our mythology for thousands of years, the emphasis alternating between their positive transformative power over human society and acting as agents of great destruction. Our image of robots has been shaped to a large extent by Hollywood and literature. Celluloid robots in Star Wars, 2001 Space Odyssey, Robocop, Star Trek and many of Isaac Asimov’s novels have become a part of the human story. Off-celluloid, robots have been helping our society in concrete ways (for example police work (bomb disposal), infrastructure projects etc.). However when Watson won Jeopardy it brought artificial intelligence and robotics a new kind of attention. People started to wonder if robots could replace humans. When we think of robots we think of self driven cars, household robots or even warrior robots. However, in our view, the influence of robots and Artificial Intelligence (AI) is more subtle and their presence more ubiquitous than one would think. One such impacted sector is the agriculture sector (in the US) which is on the cusp of a massive transformation, as it moves from mechanization to automation. When rolled out and commercialized (soon) this massive scale of automation will have a significant impact on US farming and on immigration for sure. But does this also impact the development landscape? If so how?
Agricultural robotic systems have been implemented in fruit and vegetable harvesting, greenhouses and nurseries. Harvest Automation, for example, has developed the the HV-100, a 90-pound robot for commercial nurseries that can pick up and rearrange potted plants. There are quite a few silicon valley startups that are contributing to this revolution in the region known as “America’s Salad Bowl”, around Salinas Valley. California, where Salinas Valley is located, produced $1.6 billion dollars worth of lettuce in 2010 and 70%+ of all lettuce grown in America. Lettuce Bot, a new robot developed by Stanford engineers Jorge Peraud and Lee Redden, both from farming families from Peru and Nebraska, can “produce more lettuce plants than doing it any other way” (Yahoo Finance). Lettuce Bot’s innovation is that while attached to a tractor, it takes pictures of passing plants and compares these to a database. When the weed or a lettuce head that is too close to another one is identified, a concentrated dose of fertiliser is sprayed. A close shot of fertilizer kills the errant weed or lettuce head but actually feeds the further off crops at the same time.
Similar companies include San Diego-based Vision Robotics, and Agrobot. In Europe, a new project that is a part of the European Union Seventh Framework Program (FP7) cRops (Clever Robots for Crops) is focusing on creating robots to harvest high value crops for site-specific spraying, and selective harvesting of fruit. Robots are at the cusp of changing not just the entire farming sector, but also other sectors. In fact, Moshe Vardi, Professor of Computer Science at Rice University argues that "by 2045 machines will be able to do if not any work that humans can do, then a very significant fraction of the work that humans can do". If this is true, the world will be significantly changed. What does this mean for those of us working in development? How can we start to respond now to this changing world? What will it mean for education and training if millions of workers are displaced by robotics and automation?
Here are at least two ways that development organizations can start to respond effectively and quickly to the flash-flood style technological changes that are transforming key sectors radically:
- Cross sectoral studies: what will robotics and automation of sectors such as agriculture mean for key sectors and issues such as migration? The answer to this question will not be given by any single sector. To understand the dynamics underlying this question (technology, robotics, sector speciality, social sciences, immigration), development organizations need to leverage partnerships and multi sector data collection and analysis. One organization that is doing this is the Global Knowledge Partnership on Migration and Development (KNOMAD). KNOMAD is based on multidisciplinary knowledge and evidence collection and is a collaboration between the World Bank, the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC) and the German Federal Ministry of Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ). More such partnerships should be developed and leveraged to explore issues such as the following:
- Impact of robots on key sectors, migration and remittances: In the US for example 72% of farm workers are foreign born. What if they are replaced by robots ? What will it mean, for example for the Mexican economy, a source of 68% of US farmworkers? What will it mean if the flow of unskilled labor coming from Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean to the US (38% of immigration) stops ? What similar patterns exist in other countries? (interestingly, this will not be the first time that technology and immigration may have contributed to a fundamental shift in the agriculture sector. In the 1870s-1890s, the growth in agriculture and the financial success of Salinas Valley was linked to both the Southern Pacific Railroad that came to Salinas in November of 1872 as well as the contributions of Chinese and Japanese labor labor).
- Remittances to developing countries are estimated to reach $372 billion in 2011. Many of these remittances are earned from sectors that are vulnerable to automation. What if a bulk of these remittances were to dry out as a result ? What impact would it have on the global economy and consequently on development?
- Helping countries with robotics-triggered changes: can development organizations help countries assess how to leverage the promise of robotics and other technologies? Can they assist on how to cope with this kind of creative destruction and change, and help them plan for a changed future, potentially in the process also enabling synergies across countries (such as South-South learning) ?
- Include technology focused foresight as a core development function: In future studies, the term "foresight" has become widely used to describe activities such as: “critical thinking concerning long-term developments, debate and effort to create wider participatory democracy, shaping the future, especially by influencing public policy”. Public sector foresight, as Nancy Donovan, U.S. GAO's Applied Research & Methods team (and co-founder of Public Sector Foresight Network along with Dr. Clem Bezold), says, can involve activities such as “recognizing the long-term implications of today's decisions; identifying key trends and opportunities as well as emerging challenges before they reach crisis proportions; and informing government's future role and responsibilities”. As Nancy notes, “the rapid pace of "high clockspeed”(pdf) technologies pose particular challenges to government organizations”. There is a need for an equally rigorous and integrated review of the development sector. In particular it would be useful to look at the information that foresight exercises, supplemented by big data, can provide in terms of the development pivots that need to be taken. (pivot of the lean startup model defined as a “structured course correction designed to test a new fundamental hypothesis about the product, strategy, and engine of growth” as applied to development)
While robots are not bringing about an equal society as Aristotle thought, nor are they taking over the world, robots are indeed engaging in the creative destruction of jobs in many sectors including agriculture. Using their large data processing capabilities and in some cases mimicking human actions, robots are contributing to a world that may soon be automated. We, in development, can serve our client countries well by looking more systematically at the impact of robotics on development and how we can respond to this challenge.
Photo Courtesy: Victor Habbick/freedigitalphotos
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