Sunday, June 24, 2007

Mechanization an answer to illegal immigration?

Robotic fruit pickers could be just that in the agricultural industry:

Vision Robotics, a San Diego company, is working on a pair of robots that would trundle through orchards plucking oranges, apples or other fruit from the trees. In a few years, troops of these machines could perform the tedious and labor-intensive task of fruit picking that currently employs thousands of migrant workers each season.

The robotic work has been funded entirely by agricultural associations, and pushed forward by the uncertainty surrounding the migrant labor force. Farmers are “very, very nervous about the availability and cost of labor in the near future,” says Vision Robotics CEO Derek Morikawa.

The trick to avoiding robotic single-mindedness that would usually flunk a task like this? Two robots — hence the two mentioned above — differentiating the labor. One hunts the oranges or whatever, the other actually picks.

When mechanization was first proposed decades ago Cesar Chavez strongly opposed it. But, he’s dead and the United Farm Workers is little more than a money-solicitation machine today, trading on his legacy.

Nonetheless, it has weighed in:
The United Farm Workers' leaders say they aren't worried about the robots, because they don't believe the machines will ever be able to do the job as well as people. Spokesman Marc Grossman predicts that mechanical hands will damage the fruit and make it unappealing for supermarket shoppers. "There are already machines that will pick wine grapes, but the high end wine growers don’t use them, because they want the quality," Grossman says.

Farmers, and growers’ groups, strongly disagree. In fact, interest is spreading beyond California:
The Washington Tree Fruit Commission started investing in the project last year, and Vision Robotics is talking to other agricultural groups with crops ranging from cherries to asparagus.

I think it’s a good idea, overall. And, in most the Southwest, the robots should be able to be solar-powered, eliminating fossil fuel issues.

That said, this won’t reduce pressures south of the border, just one area of incentives on our side.

The answer down there, or part of it? Two words: Birth control.

Anyway, given the immigration bill being back on the Senate’s platter, I wonder if this is going to get any airplay. It needs it.

Cross posted at SocraticGadfly.