Tuesday, February 5, 2008

The Solution to the "Migrant Problem:" Let Robots Pick the Fruit

There is finally a solution to the "Migrant Problem," which, like the "Jewish Problem" of 70 years ago, was never a problem for anybody except those who chose to regard it as a "problem" (and they, of course, were the ones with the problem). Fortunately, this "final solution" doesn't involve gas ovens but robots.

No, this is not a joke. They have finally found a practical application for robots and a group of human beings whom they can replace without anyone shedding a tear about the implications of this new brave (and soul-less) world. Of course, you don't need a soul to pick fruit. You don't even have to tell the difference between ripe and unripe since most Americans can't tell the difference anyway. Fruit picked by robots will perhaps be a little more bruised (like "mechanically separated chicken") but that will be more than offset by the knowledge that dirty migrant hands did not touch the fruit.

Although you would not think so from the xenophobic propaganda the Republican candidates are spewing for popular consumption this electoral season, there is actually a shortage of migrant workers in this country. In Michican 20 percent of the asparagus crop and 15 percent of the apple crop were lost because they didn't have enough workers to harvest them. The situation is even worse in New York's Hudson Valley where 3 billion apples wait to be picked and there is no local labor force to pick them. Farmers are blaming tighter border security for the shortage of migrant workers. The situation will only get worse when the Department of Homeland Security implements new regulations that will force employers to fire undocumented workers or be fined out of existence. To maintain Homeland Security nowadays obviously involves protecting Americans from illegal fruitpickers, putting farmers out of business and making every fruit and vegetable sold in this country cost more per pound than the price of a gallon of gas.

Well, what is a country to do that doesn't want to pay $19.95 per lb. for tomatoes but at the same time wants only native-born tomato pickers? Raise the minimum wage above the poverty line? God forbid! Do you want Wall Street to crash? Teach young Americans about the "dignity of work" (this phrase, by the way, is generally used to romanticize exploitation) in the hope that perhaps some might be persuaded to leave their sinecures at McDonald's for the "extremely labor intensive" work of a fieldhand. The historical record would belie such hopes, as there is no known instance of a house slave applying to become a fieldhand. No, there is really nothing that can be done to convince the marginalized of society to marginalize themselves even more. And middle- and upper-class Americans, of course, will never learn to be grateful that they don't have to pick their own fruit and vegetables.

It is under such circumstances of our own making that science, again, saves us from ourselves in the non-person of the agrobot, which will replace, or so it is hoped, the migrant worker. California fruit growers are financing the creation of the robotic fruit picker, a marvel of science which will at least match if not surpass the fruit-picking capacity of the average Mexican laborer and will not require as much maintenance (not that migrants require much). Whether or not, in the end, the agrobots perform up to expectations, at least, Homeland Security will not require them to have green cards. It is projected that it will require four more years of research and many millions of dollars more before the first agrobots are working side by side with live fruit pickers. That will be only in the beginning until the agrobots learn the ropes (or should that be "cables?").

Let me reiterate that this is not a joke. The San Diego-based company carrying out research on prototypes is called Vision Robotics. It's CEO, robot designer Derek Morikowa, says that "robots working in teams will soon be able to map out an entire orchard." The next challenge will be to program them to climb 17 feet citrus trees with regulation 38 lb. picking bags. After that hurdle is overcome the next challenge will be to program the agrobots to climb down again. The agrobot is described as an "octopus" (yes, why indeed limit it to two hands?) with optical scanners that can detect the fruit and mechanical arms that will pluck it "delicately without bruising it."

I can't help but wonder why Mitt Romney and Mike Huckabee haven't publicized the "Robotic Solution" to the "Migrant Problem." I am sure that it would be received jubilantly by xenophobes from coast to coast. No longer will they be left openmouthed when asked, "Well, then, who's going to replace the Mexicans? Are you, or your kids?" For some reason , they take that question as a personal insult. It must have something to do with their conception of the "dignity of work."


Charlie Bravo said...

Yes, it's just like in many offices the phone menus replace the receptionist. Where a friendly voice could help you navigate bureaucracy, a live human being could listen to you and provide a human side to any otherwise cold transaction, now you have a robotic voice who says: I did not understand what you said, did you say no or yes? (even when the caller speaks in an Oxford accent) or says press 2 for Spanish, and some chopped off version of the language give you half cooked solutions not acceptable in the English menu.
Then you have that the car industry actually died a bit (more) when the plants went from human staffed to partially robotic, to then almost-100% robotic. The work force was decimated, quality was also a casualty, and cars cost more and are sloppily designed and worse built.
The same is going to happen with the agro-business. Look where the mechanization of the sugar cane harvest took the once buoyant Cuban sugar industry. Machines, mismanagement, dictatorship, all of those were the undertakers of a tradition.
Here we will have something very similar, since robotics generally speaking are meant to substitute humans for the sake of efficiency -read costs- and for the sake of politics. You won't have a robot reclaiming any rights any time soon.
Mind you, many politicians will literally kill to have a robotic electorate.
Going back to agriculture, there's an incredible demand for workers in the American fields. Produce sometimes dies off in the fields, unharvested or partially harvested, and the farmers suffer, the consumer suffers, and the middlemen go laughing all the way down to the bank with their sheer profits. This is just simply a corruption of the principle of offer and demand, downing the offer to be able to jack up the prices.
What's funny, nobody seems to talk about the migrant workers up North. From Canada, yes, there's an organized migration to tend the wheat fields of the United States, and the general thought is that all of them go back to Canada when the harvest is finished. Nobody keeps numbers on that, though. They come and go as they please, and they also stay as they please, all hush-hush.
But as I say, the politicians one day will say, let's solve this electorate problem we have, let's robots do the voting. Wait, it's been done already! It's called communism......

Manuel A.Tellechea said...


In the Sixties robots were promoted as the housewife of tomorrow's best friend. It didn't happen. Robots couldn't do housework and they won't be able to pick fruit either. Sometimes the "human touch" is indispensable and irreplaceable. A robot could certainly be programmed to spew xenophobic slogans and replace the Romneys and Huckabees; but nothing as complicated as picking fruit.

Robots perform best on assembly lines doing work by rote. Unless they can adapt assembly-line techniques to the orchard — which would be impossible — robots would be of little use there.

Vana said...

The robots simply wont work, if they do away with the migrants we indeed will be paying 19.95 for a pound of tomatoes, who else can do the migrants work? not anyone I know, they are underpaid and live in deplorable conditions, give them a raise and a better way to live, it may be more cost efficient in the end, not to mention doing something good for those poor souls, the reason they believe they can be replaced by robots is because that's how they think of the migrants, nothing more just mere robots.

Agustin Farinas said...

Robots have their place in the automobile industry. BMW, Mercedes and Toyota use them widely and they seem to improve the quality of weldings for the chassis and the drilling of motor blocks for the engines. Toyota uses them to do the aligning of doors in their Lexus line and one cannot fault the quality of the Lexus.
As far as robots picking fruits, I don't think it will work because of so many variables. This seems to be just pie in the sky idea, more like lunacy.

Charlie Bravo said...

Agustin, the robotics as applied to the American car industry have led to its present state, which is far from healthy. And yes, the human touch is needed, my expample about the destruction of the Cuban sugar industry proves that, as we all know, at this point of scientific development there's nothing that can replicate the human touch. They might get robotic fingers coated in silicon, but the amazing complexity of tact, pressure, temperature, and the many degrees of movement of the human hand has not been replicated yet by biomechanics or robotics.
Agriculture needs human care, and human touch...
Now most of the candidates -Hilly and Obby, Romney and Huckabee, seem robotic at best. With all his faults, Ron Paul and McCain resemble faulty humans, at least that's what they convey....
Well, Ron Paul looks like a human in a tin foil hat, at least!

nonee moose said...

MAT, this reminds me of a book Orange Crush, by Tim Dorsey. A hilarious novel, and it features a very sympathetic Cuban serial killer.

I'm pretty sure I remember you saying you don't read fiction, but I also know you appreciate a well-turned phrase.

Rene M. Grave de Peralta said...

You are all assuming that the robots will be picking fruit from traditional trees. That's so yesterday! The geneticists will work with the robotics engineers to develop a more perfect tree, one that doesn't have the deficiencies of Mother Nature's faulty design. In addition, this brave new world will have such apples in it, that bruising will not be a factor after they are crossbred with tortoises and given a shell.

Robotics and genetics will combine to bring us a much better life. For instance, the "housewife of the future's best friend" will be possible after all. However, it will not happen, because a better concept has been formulated. Instead we will have the housewife of the future, period. I for one can't wait to have mine built and I'm compiling the list of my personal specifications.

Manuel A.Tellechea said...


You are right. I don't read any contemporary fiction but I will make an exception for the book that you suggest as I am intrigued by this "sympathetic Cuban serial killer." Aside from Fidel, Che and their circle I know of no "Cuban serial killer." I hope the character so described in that novel is not a Cuban freedom fighter.

If I have not said so here before my favorite American novel is A Confederacy of Dunces. I consider it the Don Quixote of U.S. literature. In fact, I stopped reading fiction with this novel because I believe it will ever be surpassed.

Manuel A.Tellechea said...


Today is a day for me to laugh. First Vana's exquisite quip about Henry and now your masterful observations on futuristic fruticulture and the robotic housewife of tomorrow.

nonee moose said...

Agree with you on CoD. The subject in question, while no Ignatius O'Reilly, is no "freedom fighter". Rather, he is more avenging angel. Keep an open mind.

Actually, the part of the book relevant to your post has nothing to do with serial killers. Though I suppose agrobots could indeed be cereal killers.

Man, that was bad. Sorry.

Manuel A.Tellechea said...


No, that was perfectly acceptable. The world became a wretched place when appreciation of a pun somehow became "lowbrow." The Bard would take exception and did thousands of times.

Agustin Farinas said...

So what shall we call these fruit picker robots? Tutti Fruttie, maybe?

Agustin Farinas said...

recently I was viewing a publicity DVD made by the BMW motorcyle factory, where robots do the weldings for chassis and engine blocks, and the tolerances claimed by the factory in their work were of 1 thousand of an inch! The rest of the work in the assembly line is done by humans highly trained and also highly paid.
Perhaps the problems experienced by the American auto industry are self-inflicted. A strong desire to produce more and more cars without regard for quality control, might be the root of the problem. As you are aware some of the highest quality cars produced in the world today come from Japan and there the use of robots is widespread. Toyota uses them widely and they have achieved great results with them in regard to quality.
As far as fruit picking robots, well, that is another story.

Ben Wright said...

As robots become more common, legal issues will arise. Contracts will be one tool for regulating robot bad behavior or unwanted spying.

Vana said...

Hahahaha Rene you gave me a good laugh.

A Thought said...

Are these robots illegal immigrant robots?