Robots have been a part of our mythology for thousands of years, the emphasis alternating between their positive transformative power over human society and acting as agents of great destruction. Our image of robots has been shaped to a large extent by Hollywood and literature. Celluloid robots in Star Wars, 2001 Space Odyssey, Robocop, Star Trek and many of Isaac Asimov’s novels have become a part of the human story. Off-celluloid, robots have been helping our society in concrete ways (for example police work (bomb disposal), infrastructure projects etc.). However when Watson won Jeopardy it brought artificial intelligence and robotics a new kind of attention. People started to wonder if robots could replace humans. When we think of robots we think of self driven cars, household robots or even warrior robots. However, in our view, the influence of robots and Artificial Intelligence (AI) is more subtle and their presence more ubiquitous than one would think. One such impacted sector is the agriculture sector (in the US) which is on the cusp of a massive transformation, as it moves from mechanization to automation. When rolled out and commercialized (soon) this massive scale of automation will have a significant impact on US farming and on immigration for sure. But does this also impact the development landscape? If so how?
Agricultural robotic systems have been implemented in fruit and vegetable harvesting, greenhouses and nurseries. Harvest Automation, for example, has developed the the HV-100, a 90-pound robot for commercial nurseries that can pick up and rearrange potted plants. There are quite a few silicon valley startups that are contributing to this revolution in the region known as “America’s Salad Bowl”, around Salinas Valley. California, where Salinas Valley is located, produced $1.6 billion dollars worth of lettuce in 2010 and 70%+ of all lettuce grown in America. Lettuce Bot, a new robot developed by Stanford engineers Jorge Peraud and Lee Redden, both from farming families from Peru and Nebraska, can “produce more lettuce plants than doing it any other way” (Yahoo Finance). Lettuce Bot’s innovation is that while attached to a tractor, it takes pictures of passing plants and compares these to a database. When the weed or a lettuce head that is too close to another one is identified, a concentrated dose of fertiliser is sprayed. A close shot of fertilizer kills the errant weed or lettuce head but actually feeds the further off crops at the same time.