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Agribots: Alternative to Amnesty?
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April 08, 2006, 05:00 AM
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[Also by Harold Brewer: Give Us This Day]

See if you can tell what the following stories have in common:

  • Sam Walton opened his first store in Arkansas. Compared with K-Mart at that time, he was insignificant. Thirty years later, Wal-Mart drove K-Mart into bankruptcy.

 

  • Super-sized IBM went looking for an operating system for its new personal computer. Bill Gates got the business and started Microsoft. Recently, Microsoft had enough money in the bank to buy IBM.

 

Why a fairy tale and two real tales? Because the fairy tale will become a real tale in the not-too-distant future. And it could transform the immigration debate.

The new real will be agricultural robots—agribots. The market is world-wide, in both advanced countries and developing countries:

  • There is room for millions of agribots in the U.S., and tens of millions worldwide.

 

  • An agribot should cost no more the $5000 to begin (about what a high-end personal computer costs now), but within ten years drop to around $1000 (about what a low-end personal computer costs now).

 

Agribot companies will be small, although not necessarily so. They will be innovative, definitely. And, they will move aggressively into territory where the modern versions of plantation owners are busy fooling others . . . as well as themselves.

Historically, people invented labor saving devices to do work they didn`t want to do. But that costs more (initially) than forcing slaves to do the work...or bringing in illegal aliens, dumping part of their costs on the taxpayer.

When plantation/agribusiness owners claim that they need immigrants to do work Americans "won`t do," they are really saying that they won`t invest the resources to develop machines to do the jobs that Americans "won`t" do. There is no agricultural job that a machine cannot be developed to handle.

Wild? I don`t think so. No wilder than the transition from the little store in Arkansas to the supermarket in our town (as well as in thousands of other towns). Or from the 4K memory on the "mainframe" I worked on in the 1950`s to the megabit memories on personal computers that I work with now.

Development of small, inexpensive robots for agriculture is already underway. (One example: Tony Grift, University of Illinois is developing small agricultural robots—he calls them "agrobots"—which may in time morph into something useful.)

Agribots: small, smart, fast, flexible—S2F2. The market is there. As plantation owners seek cheap labor and large machines, small farmers will turn to inexpensive agribots.

This technology has many potential benefits for small farms:

  • The high cost of getting into farming could be reduced—thousand dollar robots vs. hundred thousand dollar tractors—encouraging more small farms to develop.

 

  • The widow left on a farm without her farmer-husband will have the robot(s) which have been doing the work all along. That way, she won`t be forced to sell.

 

  • Mass spraying of chemicals can be avoided as small machines respond to individual plants.

And the ultimate benefit: how should we counter the immigration problem? Not by trying to shut off the supply of slave labor (that is reminiscent of shutting off alcohol during Prohibition). We should publicly fund mechanization research that develops machines to do the work.

Why fund it publicly? Because we will all benefit from the development. We seem to lack the long range viewpoint of the Japanese, who developed hybrid vehicles and are now reaping the benefits.

Let the competition begin.

Harold Brewer [Email him] was born in Wichita and raised on a farm in central Kansas. He served in the U.S. Air Force during the Berlin Airlift and the Korean War. After leaving military service, he attended the University of California and received degrees in agricultural engineering from Berkeley and Davis. He has done research at the university and federal government levels on advanced agricultural systems. He is the author of Fig Leaves and Masks.