Sunday, July 30, 2017

Row, Row Your Bot Gently Down the Farm

One of the harshest realities emanating from my July 17th blog,  The New American Values: Denyin’, Lyin’, Blamin’, Bullyin’ and Puttin’ Off, at least from an immigration perspective, is that the most difficult physical labor performed by undocumented Latin American workers is simply not work that Americans are willing to perform… at any price. Stoop labor. The worst jobs in slaughter houses. Hard and heavy construction work in horrible places under bad conditions. Immigration policies focused on these workers will not create new jobs and, as too many farmers are discovering, will result in rotting, unharvested crops and ultimately soaring food prices for all Americans.

Even the Trump administration sort of acknowledged that reality. On July 17th the Departments of Homeland Security and Labor combined to authorize 15,000 seasonal worker permits, a microscopic drop in the bucket compared to the volume of undocumented workers American farms actually need to feed America.

So let’s assume that the Trump vacuum cleaner sucks all or most of those lower-level undocumented workers and spits them out below our border. Take the morality out of the mix. Just look on the impact on “the rest of us.” Some cities will face serious economic immediate consequences. Los Angeles, for example, has 35% of its urban economy wrapped up in a complex nexus with undocumented Latinos. Lots of work – from farms to construction – just won’t get done, although some of the most skilled work might slide to a few Americans willing to do the work… if they are given substantial raises and lots of fringe benefits, above the pretty reasonable compensation already paid to those skilled and undocumented workers. Consumer prices will obviously rise substantially in those targeted businesses.
But the handwriting is on the wall. Technology is going to have to embrace solutions to replace manual labor that is simply not going to be available in the near term. Xenophobic Japan, strongly unwilling to embrace any form of mass importation of foreign labor to replace a rapidly dwindling indigenous work force, standing strong on resisting a path to citizenship – even permanent residence – has faced this labor reality before us. Robots for everything from geriatric care to hard manufacturing, embracing artificial intelligence-driven automation, are at the center of the new Japanese economy.
Get ready America. That field of endeavor – increasing reliance on increasingly-sophisticated robots – just got a massive boost from our new immigration policies. Companies are tripping all over themselves to design robots for functions up and down the entire lines of American industry. But the industry that is fomenting some of the biggest research efforts in robotic development is the $47 billion dollar-a-year agricultural sector. But please don’t assume that the advances in robotics applicable to agriculture will stay on the farm.
The hyper-stimulation of near-term agricultural needs to replace manual labor will spread robotics into corners of our economy, particularly in manufacturing and construction, that will replace all but the most skilled workers on the line. Technological blowback. The toll on the job market – at a time when higher education is increasingly viewed as negative – will be devastating. We’re not creating new and well-paying “jobs, jobs, jobs.” We are instead working to reward the folks that own the machines at the expense of the workers who used to perform those tasks. Instead of leveling the playing field, we are accelerating income inequality with almost no realistic programs to stem that ugly tide.
Look at what’s being developed, often introduced first in the fruit and vegetable fields in California. Elaborate machines, able to determine whether or not an individual apple or orange is ready to be picked, spread their sophisticated mechanical tentacles in and among branches as part of a computer-driven rolling harvester that simply rolls down the rows of trees, picking without shaking the trees and causing indiscriminate numbers of fruits to fall into nets… the last generation of robotic tree harvesters. The analytics and grasping techniques (see picture above left) of such harvesting machinery are getting truly amazing. Not all the early stage robots are that sophisticated, however... yet.
The world’s largest berry-grower, Driscoll’s Inc., is rolling out a new system of growing berries on platforms and, in conjunction with a reduced labor force, uses a strawberry picker that delicately selects and harvests the ripe fruit. “Driscoll’s is so secretive about its robotic strawberry picker it won’t let photographers within telephoto range of it… But if you do get a peek, you won’t see anything humanoid or space-aged. AgroBot is still more John Deere than C-3PO — a boxy contraption moving in fits and starts, with its computer-driven sensors, graspers and cutters missing 1 in 3 berries.
“Such has been the progress of ag-tech in California, where despite the adoption of drones, iPhone apps and satellite-driven sensors, the hand and knife still harvest the bulk of more than 200 crops.” Los Angeles Times, July 25th.  California has been dealing with a dwindling work agricultural work force – mostly undocumented – that is simply getting older… labor opportunities that even at $100/day are no longer attracting younger undocumented workers. An over 13% wage increase for such labor from 2010 to 2015 has not remotely solved this crisis.
“‘We don’t see — no matter what happens — that the labor problem will be solved,’ said Soren Bjorn, president of Driscoll’s of the Americas… That’s because immigrant farmworkers in California’s agricultural heartlands are getting older and not being replaced. After decades of crackdowns, the net flow across the U.S.-Mexico border reversed in 2005, a trend that accelerated through 2014, according to a Pew Research Center study. And native-born Americans aren’t interested in the job, even at wages that have soared at higher than average rates.
“‘We’ve been masking this problem all these years with a system that basically allowed you to accept fraudulent documents as legal, and that’s what has been keeping this workforce going,’ said Steve Scaroni, whose Fresh Harvest company is among the biggest recruiters of farm labor. ‘And now we find out we don’t have much of a labor force up here, at least a legal one.’
“Stated bluntly, there aren’t enough new immigrants for the state’s nearly half-million farm labor jobs — especially as Mexico creates competing manufacturing jobs in its own cities, Taylor said. He has calculated that the pool of potential immigrants from rural Mexico shrinks every year by about 150,000 people.” Los Angeles Times.
It’s not as if the transition to a world of robots will either be smooth or simple. Here’s one example of how tough this process has been. “An early generation of robotic machine uses a band saw to mow whole rows of baby lettuce and other greens. But when produce giant Taylor Farms tried it on romaine heads, a slight height variation in the beds put the saw right across the heart of the heads, leaving nothing but shredded leaves, Frank Maconachy [whose company, Ramsay Highlander, has been a pioneer in developing mechanical harvesters] said…” Los Angeles Times.
But combining a process of reconfiguring the planting of lettuce with new machines is slowly knocking these problems down: “Rick Antle, chief executive of Tanimura & Antle, is whittling away at the labor on the planting side. He showed off his own robotic bet, called PlantTape. The machine — equally homely as AgroBot — raced down a lettuce field outside Salinas, laying down a long strand of seedlings strung together on a biodegradable tape, like 9-volt batteries in a 50-caliber machine gun belt.
“That was twice the speed of its 35-year-old predecessor, and it required less than a tenth of the labor. To prove his point, Antle ran the old machine, which required three times the workers, on a nearby celery field. ‘That was it, for 35 years,’ Antle said.
“Lettuce growers usually plant seed, which can be unreliable, every few inches, then thin the field to fit the maximum number of heads at the optimal spacing. That means scores of workers in the spring have to walk row after row, moving inch by inch to pull seedlings over with a hoe — one of the oldest tools of agriculture.
“The computer-guided LettuceBot developed by Silicon Valley start-up Blue River Technology, can do the work of 20 of those laborers before noon. It is one of five robotic thinners deployed on thousands of acres of summer lettuce in the Salinas Valley.
“Diego Alctantar, 25, operated the tractor pulling the LettuceBot across a recently planted lettuce field near Gilroy. A computer guided jets of fertilizer-infused water to desiccate seedlings according to a kill-or-skip pattern that left nine-inch gaps between heads.” LA Times. Here’s the bottom line: every one of these problems will be solved. Agricultural fields will become increasingly automated. Just like so many manufacturing processes, such as automotive manufacturing (pictured above right) with which we are most familiar.
But artificial intelligence with hard robotics has already produced a surgical robot (DaVinci, pictured above center), investment analytics are frequently entirely completed and reported with no human intervention, and even legal filings are becoming automated. So when do you think your job will be replaced by a robot? Hmmmm… and don’t assume that you will escape this cycle at least at some level.
Oh, and one last thing. The impact on the role of men in society. You know, that notion of a man’s man, proud of strength… able to lift, build, and make… with their hand-eye coordination. Jobs requiring raw strength, with or without extreme accuracy and skill, are where robotics will slash and burn first… and the deepest. Like in construction. “A recent Oxford study predicted that 70% of US construction jobs will disappear in the coming decades; 97 percent of those jobs are held by men, and so are 95% of the 3.5 million transport and trucking jobs that robot are presently eying…. [This will become] a cultural problem, an identity problem, and – critically – a gender problem.” Laurie Penny writing for the August 2017 Wired. Think we have an issue with unemployed coal miners? There are under 100,000 of those still working. You ain’t seen nuffin’ yet! Opioid and video game addiction among unemployed blue collar men over 30 are just the early symptoms.
I’m Peter Dekom, and I do not see a shred of tangible planning at any significant governmental level to deal with the obviously and rapidly approaching massive displacement of the American work force with robotic substitutes.

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