There are words, such as ‘freedom’ and ‘democracy’ which get tossed around like a cat’s toy, tumbling between meanings depending on the speaker. To this list of floating signifiers, we can add ‘automation’ which, when mentioned by business types, is meant to depict a bright and shining future but, when used by people on the left who, one would hope, are concerned about the prospects for labor, is typically employed as a warning of trouble ahead (there’s an exception to this: the ‘fully automated luxury communism’ folks, some of whom, seeing their robot butler dreams fade, are now turning to the polar opposite idea of degrowth).

The trouble with floating signifiers is that they float, making it difficult to speak, and perhaps think, with precision – actually, this also explains their appeal; any malcontent can shout they’re defending ‘freedom’ and fool at least some of the people, some of the time, via a socially agreed-upon vagary.

One of my quixotic preoccupations is a struggle against imprecise language and thought. It’s silly; we’re all over the place as a species and wouldn’t be human if it were otherwise (among my many arguments against the ‘AI’ industry crowd is its collective failure to understand that imprecision is a key element of our cognition, beyond duplication in electronic machinery)

So, with my quest for precision in mind, let’s spend a few moments contemplating automation, trying to put some bones and flesh on an ideological mist.

Check out the graphic shown below:

The Things to Think About and Study

I cooked up this image to visualize what I see as the appropriate areas of material concern for left politics. How do things work? And, for me, because this is my area of expertise, what role does computation play in the performance and command and control of labor in these various sectors of production?

In this post, I focus on automation in farming. Oh and by the way, my focus here is also on method, on how to think; that is, how to think in material terms about things which are presented in vague ways. 

Drones, Robot Tractors and Harvestors 

For me, the foundational, 21st century work on the real-world impacts of automation on labor is ‘Automation and the Future of Work’ by Aaron Benanav. Here’s a link to an article Benanav wrote for the New Left Review outlining his argument which can be summarized as: yes, of course, there’s automation and it has an impact but not as profound and far reaching, and not in the ways we are encouraged to think.

To look at farming specifically, I visited PlugandPlay, an industry and venture capitalist boosting website (trade publications, properly analyzed, are an excellent source of information) that published “How Automation is Transforming the Farming Industry”. 

From the article:

Farm automation, often associated with “smart farming”, is technology that makes farms more efficient and automates the crop or livestock production cycle. An increasing number of companies are working on robotics innovation to develop drones, autonomous tractors, robotic harvesters, automatic watering, and seeding robots. Although these technologies are fairly new, the industry has seen an increasing number of traditional agriculture companies adopt farm automation into their processes.”

You can imagine a futuristic farm, abuzz with robotic activity, all watched over, to paraphrase the poet Richard Brautigan, by machines of sublime grace, producing the food we need while the once over-worked farmer relaxes in front of a panel of screens watching devices do all the labor.

Let’s dig a little deeper to list the categories of systems mentioned in the article:

  • Drones
  • Autonomous tractors
  • Robotic harvesters
  • Automatic watering
  • Seeding robots

For each of these categories, the PlugandPlay article, very helpfully, provides an example company. This gives us an opportunity to review the claims, methods and production readiness (i.e., can you buy a product and receive shipment and technical support for setup or are only pre-orders available?) of individual firms in each area of activity. This information enables us to add more precision to our understanding.

With this information at-hand, we’re not just saying ‘farming automation’ we’re looking at the sector’s operational mechanics.

For drones, American Robotics’ aerial survey systems are mentioned. As is my habit, I checked out their job listings to see the sort of research and engineering efforts they’re hiring for which is a solid indicator of real or aspirational capabilities. I’ve written about drone-based analysis before; it does have real world applications but isn’t as autonomous as often claimed.

The three examples of robotic harvesters listed are from Abundant Robotics, which is building specialized apple harvesting systems, Bear Flag Robotics, which seems to have retrofitted existing tractors with sensors to enable navigation through farming fields (and perhaps remote operation, the marketing material isn’t very clear about this) and Rabbit Tractors, which appears to be out of business.

There are a few other examples offered but hopefully, a picture is forming; there are, at this point, some purpose built systems – some more demonstration platform than production ready – which show the limitations, and potential usefulness of automation in the farming sector: perfect for bounded, repetitive applications (a weed sprayer that follows assigned paths comes to mind) not so great at situations requiring flexible action. Keep this principle in mind as a rule of thumb when evaluating automation claims.

It also isn’t clear how well any of these systems work in varying weather conditions, what the failure modes and maintenance schedules are and lots of other critical questions. It may seem cheaper, in concept, to replace workers with automated or semi-automated harvesters (for example) but these machines aren’t cheap and introduce new cost factors which may complicate profitability goals and it follows, adoption by agribusiness, which, like all other capitalist sectors, is always in search of profits.

So, yes, automation is indeed coming to, or is already present in farming but not, it appears, in the hands-off, labor smashing way we tend to think of when the word, ‘automation’ is tossed around, like a cat’s toy.

Next, time, I’ll take a look at automation in logistics. How far has it gone? How far will it go?