Immigration Reform – Robot Style

Grape Picking RobotI just read a fascinating article about how a new generation of robots is being created to harvest the food we eat. There are actually a couple of reasons that I find the article so interesting. For one, I’m a total nerd and robot articles always attract my attention. The second is the economic factors that are driving this robot revolution.

First let’s take a quick stroll down history lane and then I’ll wax poetic about what this new generation of agricultural robots promises us and why it is something to be welcomed, not feared.

Robots have changed the nature of work in developed countries. There is no doubt this is true. Early in the era of mechanical labor the term Technological Unemployment began to make its way throughout literature largely promulgated by people called Luddites. The idea was that robots and machines would take labor away from people leading to massive unemployment.

This didn’t happen. What happened is that horrible, nasty, low-paying, dangerous, and boring jobs that nobody wanted to do anyway were eliminated. In the information age we have elite, intelligent, well-trained, and well-paid workers capable of contributing to business growth. This is not a good thing, this is a great thing. This, naturally, requires an elite and educated workforce. Thus people who are not educated risk losing their livelihoods and this is a problem that I discussed in two other posts about the Shrinking Middle Class and the Broken Social Contract.

What I want to discuss today is the connection between cheap, abundantly available labor and wealth. When industry can employ a large number of people at an extremely low wage it is not good for society. It appears good for the business owners but the reality is that people who have little or no hope for economic advancement drain society in a number of ways. They largely pay no taxes, require government subsidies, have way too many babies, and commit most of the crimes.

The United States until recently had a huge surplus of migrant farm workers. Food producing companies employed them often at below legal wages and had no need for innovative robots that could save time and money. A couple of factors changed this. The economic down-turn and stiffer laws against illegal immigration resulted in fewer workers being available to harvest our crops.

The result is an explosion of innovation in produce picking equipment that can do the job more quickly, better, cleaner, more safely, and cheaper than workers. This technology has been long stifled because of cheap labor. People doing backbreaking jobs for minimal wages. The robots aren’t quite ready yet; machines have difficulty picking ripe fruit, avoiding bruising, and otherwise replacing people but change is coming.

My father tells the story of the summer in St. Louis he was a weeder at the Forest Park Golf Course. Basically he went out and picked weeds. If we could still get away with paying hoards of kids almost nothing to do a miserable job then they would still be out there. It’s good that we have machines to do it for us. Good for kids who now get a better job at a better wage during their summer vacations and good for employers in that the weeding gets done more efficiently and cheaper, and good for society in that people have more disposable income.

Cheap labor is bad for everyone. If people aren’t forced to find a better way, they often don’t. The world is changing. The information age is just beginning. There is a bright future for humanity awaiting us. A future where educated people actively take part in their line of work contributing not just in menial ways. A future where productivity occurs at a phenomenal rate, where every employee is well paid and happy. Where we go home at the end of the day having accomplished something and we feel good about that. Where robots do all the nasty jobs that no one really wanted, they just did it to feed their families. This is a my vision of the future.

My favorite quote in the original article was from farm workers talking about how bad mechanization will be for consumers: The fundamental question for consumers is who and, now, what do you want picking your food; a machine or a human, who with the proper training and support, can take significant steps to ensure a safer, higher quality product.

My answer? Robots!

Tom Liberman
Sword and Sorcery Fantasy with a Libertarian Twist
Current Release: The Sword of Water ($2.99 for 300+pages of fantasy goodness)
Next Release: The Spear of the Hunt

Space Exploration Man versus Robots

Space ExplorationOne of the major debates about space exploration is the idea of putting people in space versus the idea of focusing on robotic exploration. It’s an argument that brings out a lot of nerd rage and I aim to take it head-on today. I’m bracing for some backlash!

I’ll tell you my position up front and avoid any suspense. I’m not a proponent of manned exploration. I think money is better spent on robotic exploration.

Now let’s take a critical look at both types of exploration and their advantages and disadvantages. Oh, and for the politically correct crowd, when I reference manned versus unmanned I’m talking about people, men and women.

Manned Exploration

The biggest advantage of sending people into space involves their ability to react to an unknown situation in a way that a computer cannot, at least cannot yet. The argument runs that if something were to go wrong that people would be able to fix it on-the-fly as it were. My rational against this idea is that at the speed events are happening humans largely cannot react fast enough, the space shuttle disasters being examples of this. The counter-argument is Apollo 13 where men were able to find a solution to a problem and fix it. My argument against that would be that there never would have been a problem if men weren’t aboard Apollo 13 in the first place. The systems involved to transport people are more complex than those used to transport machines. Oxygen catches on fire. Robots don’t need oxygen.

The second big reason you hear to promote manned missions is that if we as a race are to eventually colonize the moon and Mars we must learn how to live in a deep-space environment. This is a reasonable argument but I think there is plenty of time to test those complications out after we send in the robots to explore and prepare the way for manned missions.

Unmanned Exploration

The advantages here are many. The cost of sending robots into space is far less than sending people. The complexity of sending robots is far less than for sending people. One of the major obstacles for sending people into space is that they must have food and water. The biggest job the shuttles to the Space Station have is sending up food and taking back waste. Believe it or not, human waste is a major problem in space.

Another huge advantage of sending robots is their durability. Rovers on the moon and Mars can operate for years in the open. While it is true men would be able to drive the rover far more quickly from place to place, they are heavily restricted by radiation concerns. Shielding is a major issue for a journey to Mars or an extended stay on the moon. Men must stay in shelters a great deal of the time and prolonged exposure to radiation is a major problem for which there are not really good solutions as of yet.

To my mind the entire International Space Station idea has been a terrible waste of time and resources for the United States and the world. It is locked in low earth orbit. The total cost of the ISS is calculated at $150 billion dollars which includes shuttle flights and components provided by other nations. For that $150 billion we’ve gotten exactly what? We’ve learned about how deep space affects the human body, something we don’t need to know if we only send robotic missions. I’m not sure what else we’ve learned? It’s a long article with many links and I’m sure a proponents of Manned Missions can fill me in!

Meanwhile our robotic exploration continues to provide actionable information about planetary bodies, meteors, the sun, and other useful things that will help us eventually exploit the solar system.

I’m not completely opposed to manned exploration, I just think our resources return much more value when spent on robotic exploration. Curiosity cost about $2.5 billion although operational costs will continue (at a far cheaper rate than the ISS) to rise. Opportunity continues to provide useful information eight years after it landed and the twin rovers (Spirit conked out) total cost to date is about $1 billion.

The manned moon missions, while certainly romantic, brought us back a bunch of rocks of little value. If we put people on Mars or establish a station on the moon what is our goal? Just to do it? That’s noble but I’m all about practical when it comes to spending my tax dollars. I’m a huge proponent of space exploration and I’d keep my support if manned missions to Mars continue apace, I’d just rather see all that money spent on robotic exploration. Robotic science is in its infancy and the ability of these tools to explore space, deep-sea, underground environments far exceeds those of men.

Don’t hesitate to tell me I’m an idiot in the comments!

Tom Liberman