Friday, February 23, 2018

The point isn't to replace people; it's to go beyond what people can do at scale.

Imagine a horticulturist at work, repotting plants, snipping off withered leaves, moving plants farther apart as they grow, setting them out in gardens and landscapes, diagnosing nutrient deficiencies, diseases, infestations, and so forth, maybe even engaging in a little selective cross-pollination to produce new varieties, as time allows. A horticulturist needs to be a soil scientist, a botanist, a plant pathologist, a designer, and, in many cases, an entrepreneur.

Now imagine automating all of the most tedious physical tasks.

Even that is no small feat; skilled horticulturists probably have among the most secure jobs in existence. Nevertheless, it can be done and will almost certainly eventually be done.

So now imagine that you're running a company that is closing in on that goal and looking forward to what to take on next. Do you attempt to automate those aspects of the work requiring design and/or business sense, to entirely replace horticulturists with robots? Or do you press on with tackling more delicate tasks, faster, based on increasingly comprehensive sensory data backed by increasingly sophisticated processing and accumulated knowledge, with the intention of gradually moving this approach to plant cultivation out onto broad acres as the cost of doing so falls far enough to be competitive with other methods?

I suppose the answer depends on who you perceive the customer to be and what you perceive to be marketable, and whether you're only interested in business-to-business relationships or also want to serve the end consumer. (Note: people may quite willingly buy their food from a vending machine, but there's likely to be much more resistance to the idea of buying potted plants or flower arrangements from one. The interaction with another human being is integral to such transactions, and for good reason.)

I see the role of robots as coming in stages, beginning with augmenting what skilled humans can do by relieving them of the most time-consuming, tedious tasks, then taking the performance of those tasks deeper, by improving precision, data collection, and the conversion of that data into knowledge, then moving the capabilities developed into a broader context, such as by applying horticultural methods at the scale of agriculture.

The goal shouldn't be to replace humans, particularly not skilled, knowledgable humans. It should be to displace crude methods by bringing skill and knowledge to bear at scale.

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