Lessons From a Slow-Motion Robot Takeover

Bloomberg View , February 09, 2018

From the cab of Rodney Terry’s state-of-the-art John Deere cotton stripper, harvesting cotton seems like the easiest job in the world. We chug along at four or five miles an hour, watching the giant machine’s bright yellow fingers gobble up eight rows of bolls at a time. White rows magically turn brown as we pass over them. Then comes the reveal, as every few minutes a plastic-wrapped cylinder eight feet across plops out the back, holding as much as 5,000 pounds of cotton ready for the gin.

“This thing is just constantly moving,” says Terry, who farms 6,000 acres in Ropesville, Texas, a half hour’s drive southwest of Lubbock. The stripper cost a whopping $700,000, but it’s amazingly efficient. Terry can harvest 100 to 120 acres a day, compared to 80 with the previous generation of equipment, which had to stop periodically to empty its basket of harvested cotton into a trailer. He can also keep working in windy weather that would blow away loose bolls waiting to be wrapped in the field.

Most important, he no longer needs to hire a half dozen harvest workers to supplement his three full-time employees. Finding reliable seasonal laborers for farms and gins is increasingly difficult in West Texas. Locals blame government benefits that offer a better deal than temporary work. (“Don’t get me started,” says Terry.) Bringing in the harvest with his new setup takes only two people at a time: one to steer the stripper and one to drive a tractor that lines up the modules for the gin to pick up. Full-timers handle everything, and the machine can run all night if needed.

“I figured out this new machine, it’s displacing at least 1,000 people,” says Dan Taylor, a retired cotton farmer and gin owner in Ropesville. “It can harvest on a good day as much as a thousand people would harvest” in the days of hand-pulling cotton. Of course, most of those people left the cotton fields decades ago. The robots are taking the jobs -- and they’ve been doing it for at least 60 years. The story of how cotton harvesting has changed over the decades doubles as a reminder that even robots take their time. At least until a certain point.

1) Full automation was impossible without years of tinkering. Although mechanized cotton harvesters were available in the 1920s, they didn’t catch on until after World War II. As long as farms needed workers to hoe weeds and thin cotton plants, replacing them at harvest time made little economic sense. Chemicals, not machines, solved that part of the problem; the ground between rows in Terry’s field is perfectly bare.

Even that wasn’t the end of it. “The ancillary requirements seemed to go on and on,” wrote the late historian Donald Holley in The Second Great Emancipation: The Mechanical Cotton Picker, Black Migration, and How They Shaped the South. Gins had to install dryers, for instance, because machine-harvested cotton retained more moisture. Farmers needed chemical defoliants to apply before harvesting so that their bales wouldn’t be contaminated with leaf trash. Breeders had to develop shorter plants with bolls that emerged at the same time, allowing a single pass through the fields. Until all these things had happened, harvesters had limited appeal.

Replacing human adaptability and skill, in short, required much more than a single new machine. Production systems are far more complicated than outside commenters realize. Robots may eventually replace people in an industry, but it can take a long time.

2) The robot takeover created opportunities. Holley called his book “The Second Great Emancipation” for good reason. Hoeing weeds and picking cotton is brutally hard work, and in the American South an oppressive racial caste system kept many black laborers tied to the land. Mechanized cotton harvesting played a major role in breaking that system.

The most adaptable farmworkers moved on to better lives, as exemplified by Dorothy Ngongang, the retired Charlotte schoolteacher whose extended family recently bought the land on which her parents were sharecroppers. As children, she and her nine siblings had to leave school for months at a time to work in the fields. “They are on the land where they used to pick cotton,” her son Decker, whose tweets about the purchase went viral, told the Washington Post. “I recognize the significance of that, they recognize the significance of that.”

3) Even when automation is unquestionably a net benefit, there are losers. Mechanization also pushed out the least-able, leaving them without marketable skills. The old cotton belt includes some of the poorest parts of the country, with few jobs and many residents depending on government assistance. “The federal government heavily subsidized and coordinated the mechanization of cotton production but failed to absorb the adjustment costs of those harmed by the results,” observe economists Wayne A. Grove and Craig Heinicke in a 2003 study. They calculated that the push of mechanization was twice as important as the pull of higher wages in the postwar period.

How to help displaced workers is a hard problem. Government checks may save people from destitution but they can also encourage them to stay too long in declining towns—a lesson to those who see the universal basic income as an easy solution to technological unemployment. Adaptation requires more than money.

Make no mistake, however. Saving human beings from hard manual labor represented progress. It freed people for more rewarding and productive jobs and raised the overall standard of living. Today the enemy is mental tedium. Computers don’t get distracted or bored. They, too, do jobs that people don’t especially like, whether measuring lymph nodes on batches of CT scans or scanning Walmart shelves for out-of-stock items and incorrect prices. Radiologists and store employees have better, more intrinsically human ways to use their work time. “This boring, repetitive task of scanning the shelves—we have yet to meet someone who has liked to do that. Employees instantly become the advocates for the robot,” Martin Hitch, chief business officer at robot-maker Bossa Nova, told Technology Review. When such mind-numbing tasks disappear, few people will mourn their passing, any more than the children of sharecroppers long to spend their summers hoeing weeds and their autumns pulling cotton bolls.