The list of jobs which cannot be automated continues to shrink, largely to the benefit of consumers. Milking machines have been reducing dairy costs for almost a century, but robotic technology is now being deployed to replace the dairy farmer. From the New York Times:
Robots allow the cows to set their own hours, lining up for automated milking five or six times a day — turning the predawn and late-afternoon sessions around which dairy farmers long built their lives into a thing of the past.
With transponders around their necks, the cows get individualized service. Lasers scan and map their underbellies, and a computer charts each animal’s “milking speed,” a critical factor in a 24-hour-a-day operation.
The robots also monitor the amount and quality of milk produced, the frequency of visits to the machine, how much each cow has eaten, and even the number of steps each cow has taken per day, which can indicate when she is in heat.
As usual, this new advance has implications for others in the business. Automation may reduce costs, but it requires capital investment. It makes the most sense at larger scales.
Many of those running small farms said the choice of a computerized milker came down to a bigger question: whether to upgrade or just give up.
“Either we were going to get out, we were going to get bigger, or we were going to try something different,” said the elder Mr. Borden, 59, whose family has been working a patch of ground about 30 miles northeast of Albany since 1837. “And this was something a little different.”
The Bordens and other farmers say a major force is cutting labor costs — health insurance, room and board, overtime, and workers’ compensation insurance — particularly when immigration reform is stalled in Washington and dependable help is hard to procure.
The machines also never complain about getting up early, working late or being kicked.
“It’s tough to find people to do it well and show up on time,” said Tim Kurtz, who installed four robotic milkers last year at his farm in Berks County, Pa. “And you don’t have to worry about that with a robot.”
For all the promise of automation, author Michael Pollan offers his usual warnings. Food is not purely a product. It is impossible to truly commoditize. Products which are consumed in mass but incapable of commoditization are an awkward fit for capitalism. Food, as a market, also has limited growth prospects. There is only so much you can eat.
This is something, Pollan says, that you see again and again when you look at which food innovations get attention — and funding. A close look often shows that the problem being solved wasn’t a problem in how we grow food, but in how companies grow profits.
Wall Street wants these companies to grow by at least 5 percent each year. But America’s population only grows by about 1 percent each year
There’s a “key fact” you need to know to understand the food industry, Pollan says: Wall Street wants these companies to grow by at least 5 percent each year. But America’s population only grows by about 1 percent each year. That is — or at least was — a problem.
“For a long time people in the industry thought it was impossible to get people to eat more,” Pollan says. “They called it ‘the fixed stomach’ and they lamented that, unlike in the shoe business where you could get people to keep buying more kinds of shoes, you couldn’t get people to eat more. Well, they’re to be congratulated. They solved that problem. Capitalism is very powerful. It solves problems. But it solves its own problems, not always our problems.”
More of Michael Pollan’s interview with Vox here.