"Robots will harvest, cook and serve our food. They will work in our factories, drive our cars and walk our dogs. Like it or not, the age of work is coming to an end."
— Gray Scott, futurist philosopher
Mr. Scott had me through the first two sentences of his prediction about how robots will take over many of the daily tasks and work that humans have traditionally done. As for the third part of his statement about the age of work coming to an end, I seriously doubt it. But then, no one has ever accused me of being a futurist, though I think about it a lot.
One of the things I’ve pondered for a long time is where the skilled workers that agriculture needs will come from, mostly as it relates to farm equipment dealers. As the overall economy improves, the need for workers will take on a new urgency.
Every year since Farm Equipment initiated its annual Outlook & Trends survey in 2005, “technician availability” has made it into the dealers’ top 5 major concerns for the year ahead. This year it was #1 on their list of biggest worries for 2018. To broaden this concern beyond the service department, this year we added “finding and retaining new personnel” in general to the list and it came in #5 on the dealers’ list of biggest concerns. “Finding good employees” was also #1 for 2018 in our survey of rural lifestyle dealers.
As advanced technologies continue to be introduced into agriculture, the absolute need for more talented personnel will rapidly follow. There’s no doubt in my mind that autonomy is well on its way. At the National Farm Machinery Show in Louisville, Ky., last week, Case IH added to the stir they created in 2016 with first showing of its autonomous tractor by defining the five “categories of autonomy.” These include guidance, coordination and optimization, operator-assisted autonomy, supervised autonomy and full autonomy.
“While the autonomous concept vehicle reveal in 2016 showed the world what’s possible with autonomous vehicles, it was just that — a concept. This working tractor provided a platform for us to start discussions with farmers and the industry about the technology needed for high efficiency farming operations today and in the future,” says Robert Zemenchik, Case IH AFS global product manager. “We’re ready to show how automation and autonomy applies across agriculture and how it can advance the precision farming solutions our customers are currently using on their farms.”
The skills required to keep this new equipment running, and running properly, will continue taxing dealers’ capabilities. If you think you’re having problems finding skilled workers today, challenges in the future will increase the pressure tenfold — and probably more.
So, along with the need to increase the efficiency of farm operations and crop yields, automation will need to be introduced to replace human labor, which will result in the “Robot Apocalypse.” According to Scott Wolla, senior economic education specialist for the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, this is fear of technological advance, an anxiety that goes back centuries.
In a recent article, he explains, “In 1589, Queen Elizabeth refused to grant the inventor of a mechanical knitting machine a patent for fear of putting manual knitters out of work. In the early 19th century, textile artisans called Luddites attempted to prevent or derail the mechanization of the textile industry.”
If agriculture needs to figure out the way to feed an increasingly hungry world, it must also figure out a way to get the job done. It only makes sense: automation, autonomy and artificial intelligence has to come to farming.
As for the fear of advanced technology taking jobs, Wolla says such concerns are pretty much unfounded. In fact, job skills will take on added emphasis in the future. In his article on the St. Louis Fed’s website, “Will Robots Take Our Jobs?” he says: “Automation does not mean that jobs with routine or repetitive tasks will simply disappear. When ATMs were introduced during the 1970s, many worried that they would replace bank branches and tellers and that employment would contract. Actually, because ATMs reduced the cost of operation, the number of bank branches increased. And while the number of tellers per branch decreased, because there were more branches, there were more employment opportunities for tellers. There were more tellers employed in 2010 than in 1980, and their duties have since expanded to include ‘relationship banking’ — something ATMs cannot do.
“A similar effect has occurred in auto manufacturing: While much manual human labor has been replaced by automation, cars have become more complex, requiring more labor. As a result, it takes more human labor to produce a car now than in the past.”
Wolla’s comment “something ATMs cannot do,” is the key. There’s no doubt that agriculture must and will automate, but technology will never take the place of “relationships.” And that’s my prediction.