Forty Acres and a Bot

Last year, I spelled out a future scenario in a Pew Research Center report, The Future of Jobs and Jobs Training, written by Lee Rainie and Janna Anderson.

I was cited for spinning this vision:

Stowe Boyd, managing director of Another Voice and a well-known thinker on work futures, discussed the intangibles of preparing humans to partner with AI and bot systems: "While we may see the creation and rollout of new training programs," he observed, "it's unclear whether they will be able to retrain those displaced from traditional sorts of work to fit into the workforce of the near future. Many of the 'skills' that will be needed are more like personality characteristics, like curiosity, or social skills that require enculturation to take hold. Individual training -- like programming or learning how to cook -- may not be what will be needed. And employers may play less of a role, especially as AI- and bot-augmented independent contracting may be the best path for many, rather than 'a job.'

Homesteading in exurbia may be the answer for many, with 'forty acres and a bot' as a political campaign slogan of 2024."

I wrote about this in 2017. This vision is becoming more tangible:

When farmworkers harvest table grapes in California's Central Valley in 109-degree August weather, part of the job involves repeatedly wheeling about 80 pounds of grapes hundreds of feet down a long row of grapevines. A new robot is designed to do the job instead, leaving workers free to spend more time picking grapes.

"People spend as much as 20%-30% of their time picking in the field actually walking up and down these picked rows," says Charlie Andersen, CEO of Augean Robotics, the startup developing the robot. For farmers, who are struggling find enough labor to pick their crops--a problem that has grown in the current state of immigration politics--the robot can make labor more productive. For workers, the robot could make a difficult job slightly less painful, and help them earn more.

Photo: Augean Robotics

The electrically powered robot, called Burro, is designed to either follow a farmworker around a farm or run loops down rows of grapes or berries. In the "follow" mode, it uses an algorithm to recognize a worker. "You literally approach it and it locks onto you, once you reach a certain point, and then it follows you like a dog," Andersen says.

So, maybe 40 acres and a burro.