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In a story set in the near future where robots perform the majority of farming (due to population growth and agribusiness efficiencies), what might still be farmed by humans? Assume no radical AI breakthroughs. The produce could be niche -- something that becomes a luxury since supply is limited compared to mass-produced products.

While many rightly point out the main value in human-farmed produce may be as a premium product, I am interested in something that could not be efficiently farmed by robots. The society depicted in the narrative will be efficiency-focused and lacking creativity, so it seems less likely they'll care about "hand picked". In fact, they may distrust it.

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  • $\begingroup$ Welcome to the site, Kris. Are you looking for a list of food items that can be grown in a backyard garden? $\endgroup$ – Frostfyre Jul 29 '15 at 3:19
  • $\begingroup$ In near future fresh water becomes scarce and due to space constraints vegetables and many others will most likely to grown using aeroponics of course these plants are genetically augmented to develop resistance to pests and diseases. There will be no farmer only robots and technicians it isn't too late to upgrade your farmers. $\endgroup$ – user6760 Jul 29 '15 at 4:42
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    $\begingroup$ Well, saffron is currently only collected by hand, since it requires extreme control. But the problem is not technology per se but costs... I believe we could use machine here too, but they would be really expensive and they may even cost more than a human to operate. $\endgroup$ – Bakuriu Jul 29 '15 at 8:48
  • $\begingroup$ Bonsai trees: un-automatable artistic input is required. $\endgroup$ – pjc50 Jul 29 '15 at 11:47
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    $\begingroup$ This question heavily reminds me of the way the farmers in the movie "Interstellar" do their job. They are more like engineers, repairing/programming their machines and yet still need to know something about growing crops. $\endgroup$ – Nras Jul 29 '15 at 12:22

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There won't be anything that can't be farmed by robots.

However, there may be some things that are not simply because some people are luddites.

Automate Everything

The the most recent holdouts preventing complete automation of farming were the fruits and vegetables that were meant to go to the grocery store rather than processed. The ones that had to look pretty.

The automation of farming has been progressing rapidly in the last couple of decades and the only thing keeping humans from actually doing the work on farms is the availability of inexpensive labor and the relative infancy of the technology. All the bugs aren't worked out yet, so the robots need babysitters.

Any remaining food items that aren't automated with either have their growing process altered (grow indoors with grow lights in controlled settings) or will use more humanoid robots to duplicate the tasks of humans. Though I can't think of or find any such holdouts.

The Luddites

There will always be a selection of foods that will continue to be farmed exclusively by humans, and they'll advertise it too, similar to "hand crafted" items which can be easily mass produced. Humans may maintain a sense of quality for food farmed by another human.

Banning the Luddites

The human farmed food fad in the age of automation may quickly fade or even become illegal as it becomes clear that the only remaining source of produce related salmonella outbreaks comes from human run farms. Robots don't have to poop[Citation Needed], but if they did, they would be programmed to always wash their manipulating appendages before handling the food.

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  • $\begingroup$ this answer assumes unlimited human advancement, where as the question specifies that the advancements AI are limited. I think that the intention of this question is that at some point in the future, human development would be such that some farming is done robots and some is not. $\endgroup$ – Lorry Laurence mcLarry Jul 29 '15 at 6:20
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    $\begingroup$ @Lorry No, this answer specifically cites the ability we have today, which is nearly compete automaton ability (though obviously not implementation). Complete automation of farming by robots will never require AI. $\endgroup$ – Samuel Jul 29 '15 at 6:24
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    $\begingroup$ Ok. sure. Look at it this way; Presently, not much is automated. If in the future, everything is automated, then logically there would be an intermediate future where some intermediate percentage of things are automated. The question implies that in the hypothetical future, not all farming is automated. referencing a future where all farming is automated is by definition, referencing a different future than the one that the question is referring to. This question is essentially asking: "What would be the last few crops to be farmed by hand" $\endgroup$ – Lorry Laurence mcLarry Jul 29 '15 at 6:36
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    $\begingroup$ @Lorry No, the question asks what produce will still require human farmers. The correct answer is "none". $\endgroup$ – Samuel Jul 29 '15 at 6:40
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    $\begingroup$ Citation for robots pooping - cnet.com/news/holy-crap-scientists-create-pooping-robot $\endgroup$ – Dannnno Jul 29 '15 at 19:14
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Much like the 'organic' and 'locally sourced' movement of today, there may be a market for human-farmed produce in such a future. I can see trendy eateries bragging that they feature the highest quality, freshest hand-picked organic produce in the city. Or perhaps supermarkets significantly marking up hand-picked produce, turning it into something of a conspicuous consumption item for wealthy urbanites.

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    $\begingroup$ Well, this is already true for wine a least: wines produced with hand-picked grapes are usually considered "better": machines tend to harm vines, and cannot discard bad grapes. $\endgroup$ – piwi Jul 29 '15 at 8:20
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    $\begingroup$ And then robot picked products would label themselves hand-picked, by using robot hands. $\endgroup$ – PyRulez Jul 29 '15 at 15:14
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    $\begingroup$ @PyRulez: and that of course will be followed by a number of articles, initiatives, lawsuits and possibly legislation to limit what exactly means 'hand-picked'. Most likely, a number of different brands and advertising gimmicks would arise that would mean something was farmed by humans. $\endgroup$ – Peter S. Jul 31 '15 at 14:07
  • $\begingroup$ @PeterS. "Don't eat anything if you can't count the number of fingers that picked it." $\endgroup$ – PyRulez Jul 31 '15 at 18:23
  • $\begingroup$ @piwi Robots can't YET discard bad grapes. If you roll each grape individually past an imaging sensor, you can check it's color. You might also weigh it, check it's density or even take a sample. You can than analyze the data to determine the grade of the grape, possibly even better than a human does. Color and size would be something a human would look at? But usually they will check per batch? With a robot, you could check each single grape individually and very precise. $\endgroup$ – Paul May 27 '16 at 7:21
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Robotic farm machinery will probably be complimented by genetically engineered plants which ripen at predictable intervals, have fruit or edible portions which are relatively uniform in size and texture and are robust enough to survive mechanized handling.

While cheap and nutritious, it is also about as appealing as Spam to eat.

Human farmers will have the important job of raising the ancestral crops which contain the original germ lines used to build the genetically engineered plants. The heritage farmers and farms also provide "boutique" food items for the wealthy, who would rather eat an "Empire" apple than a "Gamma-5" apple, and their heritage crops are regularly sampled to change up the genetically engineered fruit and vegetables so tastes and textures will also change in the market from time to time.

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  • $\begingroup$ +1 for a plausible scenario that isn't just "everything will be automated full stop". $\endgroup$ – immibis Jul 30 '15 at 23:07
  • $\begingroup$ Very valid point, but your example demonstrates that this is already the case. We've been genetically engineering plants for centuries via selective breeding, for exactly the reasons you say. Like all fruit and veg stocked by supermarkets, "Empire" apples prioritise robustness to transport, appearance and size; flavour is barely a consideration. "Elsanta" strawberries are an even better example of this - they barely taste of anything, but they're large, attractive to look at and don't bruise easily, so they're often all you find in the shops. $\endgroup$ – Graham Mar 29 at 11:53
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Most farming today is done with human-operated machinery. At least in western countries it is.

What isn't is probably going too delicate or fragile to be mechanically handled - requiring human finesse to handle properly.

Robotification(a word I've just invented) still requires a lot of mechanical handling. That's a good starting point for what can - and can't - replaced with robot farmers.

Examples:

  • Florists will still be in business. Nobody likes smashed or bruised flowers. There's also the aesthetic aspect to it; machine-learning techniques are good at generalising and producing things that people consider pleasing but arranging a bouquet of flowers might be beyond a computer.
  • Farming in mountainous areas like parts of the Middle-East where it's impossible to get machinery (robotic or otherwise) in. This is really only applicable to farming livestock; goats, etc.
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    $\begingroup$ 9001 results from Google for "robotification" :-) $\endgroup$ – Neil Slater Jul 29 '15 at 9:45
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    $\begingroup$ I think the more common term is "automation". $\endgroup$ – Ajedi32 Jul 29 '15 at 13:33
  • $\begingroup$ Nobody really 'likes' smashed or bruised produce either. $\endgroup$ – Zibbobz Jul 29 '15 at 18:22
  • $\begingroup$ @Zibbobz your right, I prefer my potatoes mashed $\endgroup$ – user2813274 Jul 30 '15 at 2:19
  • $\begingroup$ "Most farming today is done with human-operated machinery. At least in western countries it is." I'm not sure which western country, nor if you're a 100% right and I'm quite sure you won't be right in the future. Plowing, seeding, watering, harvesting etc is in small farms often done with a tractor/machine that is driven by a human. When you have an awful lot of land (American farms) GPS is often used as control, the human is only there for exceptions. Feeding and milking of dairy cows is also often done by robots. Or atleast it's on the increase. $\endgroup$ – Paul May 27 '16 at 7:29
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Machinery is already used for farming, as noted by other answers. But, as pointed out by this answer, some things are too delicate, such as:

  • Saffron, which consists of the stigmas (only) from the flowers of a certain type of crocus. You might be able to automate that, but it's a delicate operation -- saffron threads are small, thin, and delicate.

  • Grapes for ice wine, which today have to be harvested by hand and quickly. I asked about this on a winery tour some years back, and was told that automated pickers ruin too many of the grapes and you're already dealing with a small, volatile crop so you can't afford to waste any.

Both saffron and ice wine are relative luxuries, so your idea of niche markets isn't far off.

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    $\begingroup$ Some things are too delicate now, but the story is set in the future. Given current progress in robotics (IIRC it wasn't so long ago that robots grabbing an egg became mainstream), delicate produce isn't likely to remain a concern for very long. $\endgroup$ – Gilles Jul 30 '15 at 21:46
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I have a hard time imagining a produce plant that wouldn't be better farmed by a robot, given the time and resources to engineer a robot suited for that specific purpose.

So either there'd have to be a crop so rare yet also challenging to harvest that designing a specific robot wouldn't be worth the time and money. Ultra-fresh cinnamon shavings?

Or the alternative is a marketing angle, where people in the future valued human-hand harvested products over "mass produced" robot-harvested products. Say, the wealthy go to the future Whole Foods and buy "Human Artisinal" oranges picked by flesh, not metal.

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  • $\begingroup$ Whole foods: my thoughts exactly. They'll extend the meaningnof "organicly grown" . $\endgroup$ – JDługosz Jul 29 '15 at 11:45
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I know it's not produce, but I think vanilla would still be harvested by humans. The cultivation of vanilla is fairly labor intensive since it requires hand-pollination and, considering how it is so widely used today, I think any potentially game-changing AI advancements on the horizon would already be known.

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My first guess was vanilla, but since that one is already covered, here are some other ideas:

Illegal plants (like marijuana)

I'm sure that when you think about illegal activities you'd think that robots are your best friends, but there are a couple of reasons why it might not be true:

  1. Robots will want power, and you will already be draining more than your fair share from the network. The more power you use, the more you stand out, so someone may come by and start asking questions. It already happens: http://www.postandcourier.com/article/20120129/PC1602/301299979 and the more robots you have, the bigger the risk
  2. You have to get them somewhere. You also need someone to maintain them in good condition. It would be probably be easy for government goons to follow all transactions involving new robots, and most transactions involving second-hand robots. Buying several such robots without having anything bigger than a garden (officially, of course) will once again draw attention to yourself.

  3. NSA spying. How hard would it be for spy agencies to secretly install some tracking device in every robot ever produced? Probably easy, assuming they don't do that already. Your new friend will lead the police right to your doorstep.

  4. Records. Everything the robot will do, probably is going to be recorded (openly or secretly). In both cases you probably won't be able to ensure, that the machine won't be a walking pile of evidence against you.

  5. Robots don't have feelings. The can't be bought, bullied, reasoned or negotiated with. They just want to do what they programming tells them to do. You can make a human shut up one way or the other (dead men tell no tales), but with a robot you can never be sure.

Yes, it's hard to find humans who can be trusted, but with robots it's outright impossible.

Amish food

I think this is obvious - everything the Amish eat, will be produced by humans.

Also we can add to this category all the people, who believe, that nothing tastes like a fruit from a tree watered with your own blood, sweat and tears, from your own garden.

Decorative plants

Many plants have dual purpose - they both produce food and look pretty. Cherry tree is a good example. They will need a lot of human attention during their entire lifetime.

For the first couple of years they will be grown on a farm. Surely, some automation will help, but unless there will be a human to oversee whether they look pretty, it will be hard to sell them.

Once they are sold and planted in someone's garden, there will probably be little to no automation - robots are expensive and without economics of scale there will be no reason to buy them. Especially, that you need a meatbag anyway to make sure, that it still looks pretty.

And yes, it counts as food - as stated above, some people just prefer things they grew themselves.

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    $\begingroup$ Re: "Amish food", to quote from "The Last Ring-bearer" epilogue: Some say (not without a trace of mockery) that the old masters would supposedly forever invest a fraction of their souls in each batch of mithril, and since today there are no souls, but only the ‘objective reality perceived by our senses,’ by definition we have no chance to obtain true mithril. $\endgroup$ – user4239 Jul 31 '15 at 14:43
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As population grows, jobs have to be found for all those people. Either that, or there is a permant welfare transfer to unemployed masses. More healthy for the society to give them jobs.

That is where comparative advantage comes in (see also my answer to this question).

  • Assume that there is an almost infinite amount of work which can be done. New smartphones for everybody, streets with fewer potholes, more teachers in school, rehabilitation of endangered biotopes, and also food production.
  • Then decide how this amount of work is divided between people and robots. The idea is that people are only paid to do nothing as a last resort. Would you have people in the factories and robots in the fields, or robots in the factories and people in the fields? With near-future technology, the superiority of robots in a factory will be greater than the superiority in the fields, because the factory is a more predictable workplace. (Comparative advantage doesn't ask who is better at any one job, compares who is "more better" where.)
  • If wages are dictated purely by marked mechanisms, humans won't earn much. Not in the factories and not in the fields.
  • Of course farm work in the hot sun is hard and boring. Many people would rather work in a climate-controlled factory. But there are others who prefer to be outdoors.

Now to your question. You wrote that automated agribusiness, coupled with overpopulation, has put farmers out of work. Assume that they refuse to conveniently die as they're frozen out of mainstream economy, and that they don't get enough dole to make a comfortable living.

Some of those unemployed might start urban farming to supplement their diet. They are much less effective than agrirobots, but they don't have the option to sell their work and buy industrial food, and they have plenty of time on their hands.

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    $\begingroup$ I find it unlikely that the kind of capitalist society likely to produce that level of automation will spontaneously mutate into a welfare state. The combination of a capitalist system and extensive automation will exacerbate the polarisation of wealth until a civil war occurs. Since the wealthy will control legions of robots, I'm not so sure it will go well for the oppressed masses. $\endgroup$ – Peter Wone Jul 29 '15 at 9:33
  • $\begingroup$ It won't go well for the capitalists as well. They will win, but then, who should consume all their products? $\endgroup$ – Alexander Jul 29 '15 at 10:23
  • $\begingroup$ A society which has reached a level of automatization where most people will no longer be required as laborers but only as consumers, it will have to adopt a basic income. But this is a completely separate topic. $\endgroup$ – Philipp Jul 29 '15 at 11:04
  • $\begingroup$ @PeterWone, smart capitalists will realize that they need a stable society. The question is if enough of them are smart enough ... but then, "adventure" means someone far away having a bad time. $\endgroup$ – o.m. Jul 29 '15 at 16:00
  • $\begingroup$ @Alexander - their society will change, just not into a welfare state. The likely outcome is Asimov's Solaria, but perhaps not so extreme. Asimov's 50 worlds were a parody of the 50 states of the USA, and Solaria was a parodic warning about what might happen to a slave based society (the robots being the slaves, obviously). In this context there will be a transition from expansion economics to steady state with everything made in-house - a variety of feudalism. $\endgroup$ – Peter Wone Jul 30 '15 at 0:38
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In short:

ROBOTS

Farmers (people that knows a lot about farming) will be needed to supervise and define the production/programming of these 'farming robots'. They will be also needed to value their work and check the crops (well, even that could be passed to robots...).

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We are already using robots to farm. John Deere has self driving combines, and other machinery that effectively automate the production of corn, wheat and other crops that man operated machinery already cultivate/harvest. The remaining crops and practices are grove harvesting and picking of fruits and vegetables that are hand picked. When vision/recognition and coordination 'skills' are properly adapted to picking then the question only becomes one of economics. That point is only years if only months away. Another aspect of farming is the adaption of robotics to the pollination of plants in the event that the honey bee becomes extinct.

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In addition to Thucydides' answer about heritage crops and premium products, and Darth Hunterix's about illegal activities, humans, while not necessarily handling the whole process by themselves, would always be the best experts on what is appealing to humans.
So, beyond maintaining a shadow of that idea in the robots' programming and specialized hardware, only we would be suitable for the task of maintaining/selecting desirable traits. The unique scent of a certain apple cultivar, the balance of sweetness and bitterness, the effect of hydroponics on subtle qualities too difficult to quantify.

Of course, being a software engineer, I can imagine any of these things, quantifiable or not, being taught to a machine via neural networks, etc. Even trends could be predicted, while introducing no new technologies - merely making existing ones, like spectroscopy, more affordable due to mass production.
And yet, we should never allow the process to be fully automated. I wouldn't trust a machine to judge an change it wasn't programmed to assess as desirable or not.

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I predict that wassabi would still be harvested by humans, because it grows along natural mountain streams and cannot be grown in fields or hydroponics labs. Creating an robot and AI that could climb through that enviroment and search for wassabi would fail any cost benefit analysis. Continuing to send people to collect it manually would be way easier since there was never that much of it in the first place.

Generally speaking, other rare and boutique ingredients like that might still be harvested by hand. They would also be extremely valuable, given that the population has grown, but the natural environment that can viably produce them has actually decreased.

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    $\begingroup$ Your information is outdated or poorly researched. Wasabi has been commercially grown in the northwest United States for years. It's been done so, successfully, in greenhouses. Wasabi was the right answer years ago, but not anymore. $\endgroup$ – Samuel Jul 29 '15 at 6:33
  • $\begingroup$ @Samuel Okay, then how about trufles? $\endgroup$ – Alexander Jul 29 '15 at 10:24
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    $\begingroup$ @Alexander True in the early 1800s, false after that: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Truffle#Cultivation $\endgroup$ – BrianH Jul 29 '15 at 15:26
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I imagine that fruit-picking (or berry-picking) would still be done by humans. Without a radical advance in AI, our farming machines may not be able to adequately handle the complex tasks of spotting fruits hidden amongst leaves and branches, and picking or cutting off those fruits while minimizing damage to the rest of the plant.

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    $\begingroup$ I think fruit and berry picking is already done by machines in many parts. $\endgroup$ – Daniel Jul 30 '15 at 12:40

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