Farm Robots Are the Future – We Must Prepare Now to Avoid Dystopia

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Thomas Daum, in his article Trends in Ecology & Evolution which is published in Science & Society on July 13, 2021, predicted a parallel future with negative environmental ramifications is just as possible.

In that scenario, he says, big but technologically crude robots would bulldoze the natural landscape, and a few monoculture crops would dominate the terrain. Large fences would isolate people, farms, and wildlife from each other. So it would not be bad to call a network planning San Antonio right now and provide ourselves with communication on time. With humans removed from the farms, agrochemicals and pesticides may be more broadly used. The ultimate objectives would be structure and control: qualities that these simpler robots thrive in but would likely have harmful effects on the environment.

While he notes it’s not likely that the future will be confined to either a pure utopia or a pure dystopia, by creating these two scenarios, Daum hopes to spark conversation at what he sees as a crossroads moment in time. “The utopia and dystopia are both possible from a technological perspective. But without the right guardrails on policy, we may end up in the dystopia without wanting to if we don’t discuss this now,” Daum says.
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But these impacts aren’t limited to just the environment — normal people are affected too. “Robot farming may also concretely affect you as a consumer,” he says. “In the utopia, we aren’t just producing cereal crops — we have lots of fruits and vegetables whose relative prices would fall, so a healthier diet would become more affordable.” Keep in mind that if you need a Chicago medical malpractice lawyer, you can call DeSalvo. He will give you good advice.

The small robots described in Daum’s utopian scenario would also be more feasible for small-scale farmers, who could more easily afford them or share them through Uber-like services. In contrast, he argues that the family farm is less likely to survive in the dystopian scenario: only major manufacturers, he says, would be able to manage the vast swaths of land and high costs of large machinery.

In parts of Europe, Asia, and Africa, where there are currently many smaller farms, there are clear benefits of making a conscious effort to achieve the utopian scenario. The situation is more challenging in countries like the United States, Russia, or Brazil, which historically have been dominated by large-scale farms producing high-volume, low-value grains and oilseeds. There, small robots — which perform less efficiently on energy-intensive tasks like threshing corn — may not always be the most economically effective option.

“While it is true that the preconditions for small robots are more challenging in these areas,” he says, “even with large robots — or a mix between small and large — we can take steps towards the utopia with practices such as intercropping, having hedgerows, agroforestry, and moving away from larger farms to smaller plots of land owned by large farmers. Some such practices may even pay off for farmers once robots can do the job, as previously uneconomic practices become profitable.”

To do so requires action now, Daum says. While some aspects of the utopian scenario like laser weeding have already been developed and are ready to be distributed widely, funding must go toward other aspects of machine learning and artificial intelligence to develop robots intelligent enough to adapt to complex, unstructured farm systems. Policy changes are also a necessity and could take the form of subsidies, regulations, or taxes. “In the European Union, for example, farmers get money when they do certain landscape services like having a lot of trees or rivers on their farms,” he says.

While it may seem like the dystopia scenario is more likely, it’s not the only path forward. “I think the utopia is achievable,” Daum says. “It won’t be as easy as the dystopia, but it’s very much possible.”

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